US cyber investors pledge with one condition that spyware is off limits


on Monday The Biden administration announced that six new countries have joined an international coalition to fight the spread of commercial spyware sold by companies like NSO Group or Intellexa.

Now, some investors have announced that they too are committed to fighting spyware. But according to a leaked 2021-dated slide deck obtained by TechCrunch, at least one of those investors, Paladin Capital Group, has previously invested in the company that developed the malware, though the firm told TechCrunch it hasn’t been doing so for some time. Was “dropped out” of the firm. First.

Over the past few years, the US government has attempted to limit or at least ban the use of spyware around the world by placing surveillance technology manufacturers such as NSO Group, Candiru, and Intelexa on blocklists, as well as imposing export controls. Visa restrictions on those companies and people associated with the industry. Recently, the government has imposed economic sanctions not only on the companies, but also directly on the executive who founded Intellexa. These actions have alerted others in the spyware industry.

In a call with reporters on Monday, which TechCrunch participated in, a senior Biden administration official said that a representative of Paladin participated in meetings at the White House on March 7, as well as in Seoul this week, where governments Gathered for the Summit for Democracy. Discuss spyware.

Paladin, one of the largest investors in cybersecurity startups, and several other venture firms published a set of voluntary investment principles stating they will invest in companies that “protect free and open societies, national security, and foreign advance the interests of the policy.”

The senior administration official said, “For us, this was an important first step in developing an investor framework that investments should not go toward companies that are selling products, and selling to customers that are promoting a free and fair society. Can weaken.” The call, where journalists agreed not to quote the names of the officials.

Listening to some of these investors, you will realize that spyware has no place in a free and open society.

Paladin founder and managing partner Michael Stead explained the firm’s thought process when considering an investment in a cybersecurity company in an interview with TechCrunch. “Can this technology be used in the commercial spyware field?”. he asked rhetorically. “We are looking at those technologies in a way that we want to protect economic, national security and foreign policy interests in a free and open society.”

Yet, in the past, Paladin had invested in Boldend, a little-known offensive cybersecurity startup founded in 2017 and based in California.

Among several other products, Boldend claims to have developed an “all-in-one malware platform” called Origin, which according to the leaked slide deck “makes it easy to build any piece of malware for any platform.” make capable”.

Boldend advertised Origen as “capable of automating any possible attack” against Windows, Linux, Mac, and Android devices, and described Origen informally as a “device management tool”. In another slide, Boldend said Origen’s future goal was to do “automated compromise, lateralization, and forensic removal.”

In other words, it is Boldend’s platform to hack someone’s device and extract data from it.


Do you know more about Boldend? Or about spyware providers? From a non-working device, you can securely contact Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai on Signal at +1 917 257 1382 or via Telegram, Keybase and Wire @lorenzofb, or email. You can also contact TechCrunch through SecureDrop.

Stead said Paladin no longer invests in Boldend, although he declined to say why. Stead did not respond to follow-up questions attempting to clarify how Paladin’s relationship with Boldend ended.

“It didn’t do what we wanted. So we came out of it,” Stead told TechCrunch.

Boldend did not respond to a request for comment. The startup’s website is useless and tells little about what the company does. When contacted by TechCrunch in October 2023, Boldend board member Mike Barry, who is now listed on LinkedIn as the company’s chief executive, said the startup was “very active and good.”

In the leaked slide deck, Boldend claims to have sold his “cyber weapons and expertise” to Raytheon, Novetta, FedData, the Department of Defense, US Cyber ​​Command, and the intelligence community more broadly. Boldend also said it received funding from Founders Fund, the giant venture capital firm led by Peter Thiel, and Gula Tech Adventures.

Several different products are outlined in the leaked slides. In addition to Orijen, there is Kevlar, an automated platform to analyze implants; Hedgemaze, an obfuscated traffic routing platform for infrastructure management; and Cricket, a portable hardware platform for launching Wi-Fi-based attacks.

Boldend said in slides that he hopes to develop software for “complete turnkey cyber operations” such as offensive cyber capabilities, electronic warfare and signals intelligence; US government sanctioned hack-back services; and an AI platform to “dynamically identify, exploit, build infrastructure as well as create online personas to perform a variety of intelligence tasks while maintaining forensic integrity,” including “social media Creating and spreading a “fake news story”.

In one slide, Boldend claims it has developed tools to gain “remote access to all WhatsApp on all Androids.” And he spent a year developing that capability, but it was “destroyed by an update.” The New York Times first reported Boldend’s creation of the WhatsApp exploit.

Gula Tech, which also invested in Boldend, also signed up to the principles and commitments published by Paladin. Ron Gula, president and co-founder of Gula Tech, declined to comment for this article.

Gula Tech and Paladin’s investment in Boldend – effectively a US-based exploit and hacking software maker – and the two investment firms’ commitment not to invest in spyware companies may seem contradictory. But the investors’ pledge leaves the door open to investment in some companies, if they serve the interests of the United States and a “free and open society.”

How far do those principles really extend as it relates to other countries that are close allies of the United States but with a history of potential human rights violations? For example, does this mean that Paladin will not invest in Saudi Arabian or Israeli companies? Steed would not commit to a direct answer.

“If you talk to Israelis, you talk to Saudis, they will tell you that they are free and open societies and they are allies of the United States. We are still very cautious. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Israel, or Saudi, or France or Germany, we’re still very careful about what we invest in,” Stead said. “To make sure we are not violating the concept of a free and open society.”

What a free and open society means, and where that red line lies, seems to be something only investors know.

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