Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

How the Global Spyware Industry Spiraled Out of Control

Posted by M. C. on December 10, 2022

The market for commercial spyware — which allows governments to invade mobile phones and vacuum up data — is booming. Even the U.S. government is using it.

Do ya think Israeli spyware is spying on the ones using Israeli spyware?

By Mark MazzettiRonen Bergman and Matina Stevis-Gridneff

Mark Mazzetti reported from Washington, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv and Nicosia, Cyprus, and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels, Athens and Nicosia.

The Biden administration took a public stand last year against the abuse of spyware to target human rights activists, dissidents and journalists: It blacklisted the most notorious maker of the hacking tools, the Israeli firm NSO Group.

But the global industry for commercial spyware — which allows governments to invade mobile phones and vacuum up data — continues to boom. Even the U.S. government is using it.

The Drug Enforcement Administration is secretly deploying spyware from a different Israeli firm, according to five people familiar with the agency’s operations, in the first confirmed use of commercial spyware by the federal government.

At the same time, the use of spyware continues to proliferate around the world, with new firms — which employ former Israeli cyberintelligence veterans, some of whom worked for NSO — stepping in to fill the void left by the blacklisting. With this next generation of firms, technology that once was in the hands of a small number of nations is now ubiquitous — transforming the landscape of government spying.

One firm, selling a hacking tool called Predator and run by a former Israeli general from offices in Greece, is at the center of a political scandal in Athens over the spyware’s use against politicians and journalists.

After questions from The New York Times, the Greek government admitted that it gave the company, Intellexa, licenses to sell Predator to at least one country with a history of repression, Madagascar. The Times has also obtained a business proposal that Intellexa made to sell its products to Ukraine, which turned down the sales pitch.

Predator was found to have been used in another dozen countries since 2021, illustrating the continued demand among governments and the lack of robust international efforts to limit the use of such tools.

The Times investigation is based on an examination of thousands of pages of documents — including sealed court documents in Cyprus, classified parliamentary testimonies in Greece and a secret Israeli military police investigation — as well as interviews with more than two dozen government and judicial officials, law enforcement agents, business executives and hacking victims in five countries.

The most sophisticated spyware tools — like NSO’s Pegasus — have “zero-click” technology, meaning they can stealthily and remotely extract everything from a target’s mobile phone, without the user having to click on a malicious link to give Pegasus remote access. They can also turn the mobile phone into a tracking and secret recording device, allowing the phone to spy on its owner. But hacking tools without zero-click capability, which are considerably cheaper, also have a significant market.

Commercial spyware has been used by intelligence services and police forces to hack phones used by drug networks and terrorist groups. But it has also been abused by numerous authoritarian regimes and democracies to spy on political opponents and journalists. This has led governments to a sometimes tortured rationale for their use — including an emerging White House position that the justification for using these powerful weapons depends in part on who is using them and against whom.

The Biden administration is trying to impose some degree of order to the global chaos, but in this environment, the United States has played both arsonist and firefighter. Besides the D.E.A.’s use of spyware — in this case, a tool called Graphite, made by the Israeli firm Paragon — the C.I.A. during the Trump administration purchased Pegasus for the government of Djibouti, which used the hacking tool for at least a year. And F.B.I. officials made a push in late 2020 and the first half of 2021 to deploy Pegasus in their own criminal investigations before the bureau ultimately abandoned the idea.

In a statement to The Times, the Drug Enforcement Administration said that “the men and women of the D.E.A. are using every lawful investigative tool available to pursue the foreign-based cartels and individuals operating around the world responsible for the drug-poisoning deaths of 107,622 Americans last year.”

Steven Feldstein, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, has documented the use of spyware by at least 73 countries.

“The penalties against NSO and its ilk are important,” he said. “But in reality, other vendors are stepping in. And there’s no sign it’s going away.”

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