U.S. Gov imposed Visa restrictions on 13 individuals linked to commercial spyware activity

Pierluigi Paganini April 23, 2024

The U.S. Department of State imposed visa restrictions on 13 individuals allegedly linked to the commercial spyware business.

The US Department of State is imposing visa restrictions on 13 individuals involved in the development and sale of commercial spyware or their immediate family members. The measure aims to counter the misuse of surveillance technology targeting journalists, academics, human rights defenders, dissidents, and US Government personnel, as documented in the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

“the Department is taking steps to impose visa restrictions on 13 individuals who have been involved in the development and sale of commercial spyware or who are immediate family members of those involved.” reads the announcement.  “These individuals have facilitated or derived financial benefit from the misuse of this technology, which has targeted journalists, academics, human rights defenders, dissidents and other perceived critics, and U.S. Government personnel.”

The announcement doesn’t name the individuals targeted by the visa restrictions.

The visa restrictions are part of a broader initiative launched by the US government aimed at countering the proliferation of commercial spyware. Other measures proposed and adopted by the US authorities include restrictions on the government’s use of such spyware, export controls, and sanctions to promote accountability.

“The US government believes that the engagement of civil society and the private sector in identifying technological solutions to prevent the misuse of spyware, safeguard human rights defenders, and strengthen the resilience of victims is essential.”

In February, the U.S. State Department announced it is implementing a new policy to impose visa restrictions on individuals involved in the misuse of commercial spyware.

The policy underscores the U.S. Government’s commitment to addressing the misuse of surveillance software, which poses a significant threat to society

“The misuse of commercial spyware threatens privacy and freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.  Such targeting has been linked to arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings in the most egregious of cases.  Additionally, the misuse of these tools presents a security and counterintelligence threat to U.S. personnel.” reads the announcement. The United States stands on the side of human rights and fundamental freedoms and will continue to promote accountability for individuals involved in commercial spyware misuse.”

The policy specifically addresses the abuse of commercial spyware for unlawfully surveilling, harassing, suppressing, or intimidating individuals.

Visa restrictions target individuals believed to facilitate or derive financial benefit from the misuse of commercial spyware and also surveillance companies that act on behalf of governments.

The restrictions are extended to the immediate family members of the targeted individuals, including spouses and children of any age.

In March 2023, the US Government issued an Executive Order on the prohibition on use by the United States Government of commercial spyware that poses risks to national security.

In July 2023, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) added surveillance technology vendors Intellexa and Cytrox to the Entity List for trafficking in cyber exploits used to gain access to information systems.

The Entity List maintained by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) is a trade control list created and maintained by the U.S. government. It identifies foreign individuals, organizations, companies, and government entities that are subject to specific export controls and restrictions due to their involvement in activities that threaten the U.S. national security or foreign policy interests.

The U.S. Government warns of the key role that surveillance technology plays in surveillance activities that can lead to repression and other human rights abuses.

The Commerce Department’s action targeted the above companies because their technology could contribute to the development of surveillance tools that pose a risk of misuse in violations or abuses of human rights.

The financial entities added to the Entity List include Intellexa S.A. in Greece, Cytrox Holdings Crt in Hungary, Intellexa Limited in Ireland, and Cytrox AD in North Macedonia.

In May 2023, Google’s Threat Analysis Group (TAG) researchers discovered three campaigns, between August and October 2021, targeting Android users with five zero-day vulnerabilities.

The attacks aimed at installing the surveillance spyware Predator, developed by the North Macedonian firm Cytrox.

According to Google, the exploits were included in Cytrox’s commercial surveillance spyware that is sold to different nation-state actors, including Egypt, Armenia, Greece, Madagascar, Côte d’Ivoire, Serbia, Spain, and Indonesia.

In December 2022, a report published by CitizenLab researchers detailed the use of the Predator spyware against exiled politician Ayman Nour and the host of a popular news program.

The disconcerting aspect of these attacks is that Ayman Nour’s phone was simultaneously infected with both Cytrox’s Predator and NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, operated by two different nation-state actors.

The exploits were used to initially deliver the ALIEN Android banking Trojan that acts as a loader for the PREDATOR implant.

In November 2021, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) sanctioned four companies for the development of spyware or the sale of hacking tools used by nation-state actors.

The surveillance firms were NSO Group and Candiru from Israel, Computer Security Initiative Consultancy PTE. LTD from Singapore, and Positive Technologies from Russia.

NSO Group and Candiru were sanctioned for the development and sale of surveillance software used to spy on journalists and activists. Positive Technologies and Computer Security Initiative Consultancy PTE. LTD. are being sanctioned because both entities traffic in cyber exploits used by threat actors to compromise computer networks of organizations worldwide. The US authorities have added the companies to the Entity List based on their engagement in activities counter to U.S. national security.

In the last couple of years, like NSO Group and Candiru, made the headlines because totalitarian regimes used their spyware to spy on journalists, dissidents, and government opposition.

Pierluigi Paganini

Follow me on Twitter: @securityaffairs and Facebook and Mastodon

(SecurityAffairs – hacking, commercial spyware)

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