What the DarkMatter cyber mercenary hacking scandal means

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Image for article titled The Ex-NSA Cyber ​​Mercenary Scandal shows the spyware industry is completely out of control

photo: ALMOND NGAN / AFP (Getty Images)

The Justice Department announced earlier this week revealed that three former US intelligence officers faced federal charges in connection with their work for DarkMatter, a foreign cybersecurity company based in the United Arab Emirates.

The men who used to work for the National Security Agency were part of a covert operation called “Project raven“Which between 2016 and 2019 helped the UAE government spy on critics of its regime. To this end, the hackers who were hired helped the Middle East monarchy collapse Computer systems and devices around the world – including those in the United States

While the perpetrators have now reached a deferred prosecution arrangement with the government that allows them to basically pay themselves to see any jail sentence (a loophole with a price tag of $ 1.6 million) – the consequences of the fall are certainly not so easy to bring to bed.

Suffice it to say, the idea that former American security forces target US systems at the behest of a foreign government is a pretty daunting scenario. Yet such activity is probably only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the nefariousness of the spyware industry – a poorly understood area that as many have noticed, has little legal or regulatory barriers to prevent this kind of rotten shit.

The “Raven” incident itself shows that US companies that want to sell powerful cyber weapons to foreign governments are subject to few restrictions: DarkMatter’s agents appear to have worked with an American cyber company based in Denver Accuvant– who sold them a $ 1.6 million iPhone hacking tool that was used in subsequent hacking antics.

To make matters worse is the scandal that one of the defendants, Daniel Gericke, is currently Chief Information Officer of ExpressVPN, one of the most widely used data protection products of its kind on the market. Yes, a guy who has been accused of breaking federal law to compromise American networks and devices is also currently employed by a company that aims to protect your privacy online. Creepy isn’t it?

The news of Gericke’s involvement in Project Raven, of course, sparked quite a bit of outrage on the Internet – and fueled a discussion about whether the average data protection product can be trusted.

However, the company has defended its decision to hire him, and even admitted that it did knew about his background when it hired him in 2019.

“We find it deeply regrettable that the news about Daniel Gericke over the past few days has aroused concern among our users and prompted us to question our commitment to our core values,” said the company said in a blog post Thursday. “To be perfectly clear, as much as we value Daniel’s expertise and how it has helped us protect our customers, we do not condone Project Raven. The surveillance it represents is in contrast to our mission. “

But how comforting can these assurances really be when it is clear that the privacy industry appears to be populated by the same people who run the surveillance industry?

This year too, controversies in the surveillance industry pile up and fuel one another Calls for national and global regulations that can combat the abuses.

Most of all there was outrage over that Abuse of the NSO group, a notorious Israeli spyware company known for selling its powerful, device-compromising malware to repressive regimes around the world. In July, a number of nonprofits and news outlets began sharing stories related to the “Pegasus project”, An investigation into the extent to which the company’s malware has spread around the world. The investigation revealed a treasure trove of approximately 50,000 “potential targets” from Pegasus, which, according to researchers, included: the phones of dignitaries and diplomats like the French head of state Emmanuel Macron, as well as devices of other presidents, former prime ministers and the king of Morocco, among others. Even more problematic, Apple just last week announced Patches for security holes exploited by Pegasus. The patches that were applied to some 1.65 billion Apple productsthat have been susceptible since March.

With all that said, there may be hope and signs on the horizon that regulators are finally giving in to calls for action.

As an example, consider the case of SpyFone – a “stalkerware” company that critic say has supported “stalkers and domestic abusers” in their efforts to monitor victims. The company was recently banned out of operation by the Federal Trade Commission – a first such decision that could signal an imminent crackdown on the spyware industry as a whole. FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra also suggested that law enforcement agencies could investigate whether a criminal charge was warranted.

However, data protection officers have suggested that a simple ban on operating occasional businesses or prosecution will not be enough. Amnesty International, which has helped expose abuses committed by NSOs required a worldwide moratorium on the sale of spyware products until a “human rights-compliant regulatory framework” can be developed and implemented. Other activists have similarly proposed that all sales should cease until governments can “investigate and regulate this industry” – which is poorly understood by lawmakers and everyday peopleple the same.

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, the United Arab Emirates cybersecurity firm DarkMatter was incorrectly referred to as BlackMatter. We regret the mistake.


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