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Israel's Predator spyware rivals NSO's Pegasus

September 10, 2022 at 11:48 am

A photographic illustration shows a mobile phone near the NSO Group company logo [JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images]

The US and the Israeli Ministry of Public Security have imposed restrictions and sanctions on Israeli spyware company NSO. It was placed on the US blacklist, resulting in a decline in its deals and income.

However, it wasn’t the politicians, opposition activists and journalists who were spied on who benefitted from these restrictions, but rather another cyber-attacker Tal Dilian, a former combat fighter in an elite Special Operations Unit of the Intelligence Corps in the Israeli army and held a senior position in the Israeli Military Intelligence Division “Aman”.

Israel's Pegasus spyware global weapon to silence critics? - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Israel’s Pegasus spyware global weapon to silence critics? – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

One of the spyware companies that Dilian founded is Intelexa, which developed the Predator software. Dillian focused on selling this spyware programme to countries where the Israeli Defence Ministry does not issue permits to export cyber-attack software, such as Bangladesh, Sudan and Ukraine, according to a report in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper published on Friday.

Unlike cyber-attack companies registered and operating in Israel, which are subject to the supervision of the Security Export Supervision Division in the Ministry of Defence, Dilian believes he is not under the Ministry of Security’s supervision and can supply his goods to any country or entity.

About a year ago, the phone of Greek journalist Thanasis Koukakis was behaving oddly, as his battery began to die quickly and phone calls were being disconnected. The journalist, who criticised the Greek prime minister’s economic policy, became suspicious that he was being watched. A month later, a Canadian cyber security research institute, Citizen Lab, discovered that the Predator programme had hacked Koukakis’ phone.

It was also found, following the formation of a commission of inquiry into the matter by the European Parliament and after examining 200 of its members’ phones, that an unsuccessful attempt had been made to hack the phone of the head of the Greek opposition, Nikos Androulakis, which caused a scandal described as the “Greek Watergate”.

Citizen Lab published a report last December confirming that two Egyptian dissidents in exile, politician Ayman Nour and a popular programme host who wishes to remain anonymous, had been hacked by the Predator spyware.

READ: Israel spyware company NSO seeks buyer as CEO resigns

The newspaper added that investigations into the Greek scandal revealed the source of the Predator programme as Israel. Several weeks ago, members of the investigation commission set up by the European Union secretly visited Israel and met with officials in the Ministries of Justice and Public Security, as well as with Director General and founder of NSO Shalev Julio. The investigation committee announced that it had not found evidence linking Pegasus to a spying scandal in Spain.

While the US and Israeli authorities imposed sanctions and restrictions on Israeli cyber companies, an official in the Israeli cyber intelligence company Verint, Sam Rabin, resigned to appoint the deputy general manager of Intelexa, based in North Macedonia. However, most of its employees and director, as well as the hackers, are individuals dismissed from Israeli intelligence services. Dilian held the rank of colonel in the Israeli army and was the commander of the 81st Technological Unit and a senior officer in the army’s special operations unit.