US sanctions spyware vendor for targeting officials, journalists, dissidents

The US Treasury has slapped Intellexa Consortium with “first-of-its-kind” sanctions over unauthorized data extraction and development of Predator spyware.

The Treasury Department targeted two individuals and five entities associated with the Intellexa Consortium for their role in "developing, operating and distributing commercial spyware technology," which the US government says was used against journalists, dissidents, policy experts, and US officials.

The sanctions effectively freeze any US assets of those targeted and generally bar Americans from dealing with them. Those that engage in certain transactions with them also risk being hit with sanctions. The company had already been subject to trade restrictions under measures imposed by the Commerce Department in July 2023.

The announcement Tuesday represents the first time the government has sanctioned a commercial spyware entity.

Intellexa is a well-known cyber intelligence company that's received media attention in recent years after their software platform, known as Predator, which enables mobile phone and internet surveillance, was allegedly captured on the devices of victims in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the United States.

In addition to acting as an individual company, Intellexa owns, invests in, and also partners with other spyware firms under a consortium model, according to analysts.

“Once a device is infected by the Predator spyware, the spyware can be leveraged for a variety of information stealing and surveillance capabilities – this includes the unauthorized extraction of data, geolocation tracking, and access to a variety of applications and personal information on the compromised device,” Treasury Department officials described in a statement.

Intellexa's founder, Tal Dillian, who is among those targeted by the sanctions, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Dillian, a former Israeli government intelligence officer, launched the company in Israel but later moved abroad, establishing operations in Cyprus and Greece – where export control laws on surveillance technologies are less developed. In recent years, the company was accused of servicing the Egyptian government as well as Vietnam, according to security researchers and press reports.

In 2023, a group of investigative news outlets reported that the Vietnamese government had tried to implant spyware on the phones of members of Congress using Intellexa's tools. The targeting occurred just as U.S. and Vietnamese diplomats were negotiating a cooperation agreement designed to counter Chinese influence in South East Asia, according to the Washington Post.

After years of calls for actions by civil society groups across multiple presidential administration, Biden's National Security Council has been the first to tackle the issue of regulating commercial hacking tools, establishing an Executive Order in 2023 that sought to introduce new controls.

“The United States remains focused on establishing clear guardrails for the responsible development and use of these technologies while also ensuring the protection of human rights and civil liberties of individuals around the world,” said Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson in a statement.