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How the Global Spyware Industry Spiraled Out of Control

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.

New York Times, 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. Dec. 9, 2022

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…………….

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 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. …………………………………………………….

Similar to Pegasus, the NSO tool, Graphite spyware can invade the mobile phone of its target and extract its contents. But unlike Pegasus, which collects data stored inside the phone itself, Graphite primarily collects data from the cloud, after data is backed up from the phone. This can make it more difficult to discover the hack and theft of information, according to cybersecurity experts………………………………………………………………….

………………………………………………… Predator requires the targeted user to click on a link to infect the user’s phone, whereas Pegasus infects the phone without any action from the target. That means Predator requires more creativity to entice already wary targets to click.

Predator infections come in the form of carefully crafted, personalized instant messages and infected links mimicking established websites. Once the phone is infected, the spyware has many of the same snooping capabilities of Pegasus, according to experts. An investigation into Predator by Meta listed about 300 such sites that experts had found were used for Predator infections.

………………………………………………… Meta, as well as the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity watchdog organization, detected Predator in Armenia, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Madagascar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Vietnam, the Philippines and Germany. These locations were determined through internet scans for servers known to be associated with the spyware.

Over the past few months, Predator has also roiled public life in Greece, where it was found to have been used against journalists and opposition figures. The Greek government has repeatedly described the spyware as illegal and said it had nothing to do with it.

Despite the denunciations, Greece admitted to backing Intellexa and its spyware in a vital way: by licensing the company to export Predator to Madagascar, whose government has a history of cracking down on dissent………………………………. more https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/08/us/politics/spyware-nso-pegasus-paragon.html

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December 9, 2022 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, secrets,lies and civil liberties

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