US sanctions spyware company before third democracy summit

By Kuksung Nam, The Readable
Mar. 6, 2024 7:45PM GMT+9

The United States Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on a network associated with Intellexa Consortium, a Greece-based spyware company. This action comes ahead of the third Summit for Democracy, which is scheduled to take place in the coming weeks.

In a press release on Tuesday, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that it had blacklisted two individuals and five entities associated with the Intellexa Consortium. They are accused of developing, operating, and distributing malicious software allegedly used to target U.S. government officials, journalists, and policy experts.

The sanctions list included the founder of the consortium, a corporate offshoring specialist who played a leadership role in the operation. Intellexa S.A., a software company based in Greece and a part of the consortium, was blacklisted for taking part in exporting spyware to authoritarian regimes. Additionally, four other companies based in Ireland, North Macedonia, and Hungary were sanctioned for their roles in developing and distributing the malicious software.

The OFAC identified Intellexa as serving as a “marketing label” for companies engaged in offensive cyber activities. Since its founding in 2019, Intellexa has sold commercial surveillance tools that have facilitated a broad array of surveillance operations for its clients. The U.S. government singled out a suite of tools known as “Predator,” which it noted has the capability to compromise victims’ digital devices without requiring any interaction from the user, such as clicking on malicious links. This capability allows the perpetrator to harvest vast quantities of sensitive information.

“The Intellexa Consortium, serving a global customer base, has facilitated the spread of commercial spyware and surveillance technologies worldwide,” stated the OFAC. “Upon successful infection by Predator, the operators of the spyware can access and extract sensitive data, including contacts, call logs, messaging details, microphone recordings, and media files from the compromised device.”

The U.S. sanctions were announced in advance of the third Summit for Democracy, scheduled to take place in South Korea on March 18. The inaugural Summit for Democracy was organized by the U.S. as part of its initiative to collaborate with international partners in tackling emerging challenges to democratic governance. The second summit occurred last year and was co-hosted by a coalition of five countries: the U.S., Costa Rica, the Netherlands, Zambia, and South Korea.

In advance of the second event, U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order outlining the U.S. government’s commitment to leveraging its influence to curb the global use of powerful surveillance software. These tools have been used globally to surveil human rights activists, political dissidents, and journalists. Furthermore, in March of last year, a coalition of eleven countries—including the U.S. and the United Kingdon—issued a collective statement aimed at combating the improper use of commercial surveillance equipment.

The cover image of this article was designed by Daeun Lee. This article was copyedited by Arthur Gregory Willers.

Kuksung Nam is a journalist for The Readable. She has extensively traversed the globe to cover the latest stories on the cyber threat landscape and has been producing in-depth stories on security and privacy by engaging with industry giants, foreign government officials and experts. Before joining The Readable, Kuksung reported on politics for one of South Korea’s top-five local newspapers, The Kyeongin Ilbo. Her journalistic skills and reportage earned her the coveted Journalists Association of Korea award in 2021 for her essay detailing exclusive stories about the misconduct of a former government official. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in French from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, a testament to her linguistic capabilities.