Man Behind Hack-for-Hire Campaign That Targeted Environmental Activists Is Keeping His Mouth Shut

Man Behind Hack-for-Hire Campaign That Targeted Environmental Activists Is Keeping His Mouth Shut

The key figure in a hacker-for-hire scheme that targeted U.S. environmental activists and others is due to receive his prison sentence soon but, despite facing a potentially lengthy stint behind bars, he still won’t name the co-conspirators who hired him.

Aviram Azari, a private detective from Israel, is said to have played a key role in an array of illegal cyber campaigns that targeted a broad variety of victims for hacking and digital surveillance. Included among the ranks of victims were U.S.-based environmental activists, financial companies, lawyers, government officials, and businessmen. Azari is said to have acted as a “middleman” on behalf of unknown third-party clients, who paid him to coordinate hacking and surveillance operations that enlisted shadowy hacker firms based in India.

One of those companies, the hacker-for-hire firm BelltroX Infotech Services, has a record of causing trouble. Indeed, BelltroX was one of six private “surveillance firms” that were formally banned from Meta platforms in December of 2021, after the social media company discovered the firms had been engaged in spying campaigns targeted at thousands of users. BelltroX is also said to have played a role in another hacking campaign that targeted a former Wall Street Journal reporter.

For his role in the aforementioned hacking conspiracies, Azari was arrested in New York in 2019 and has been detained in a Brooklyn prison ever since. After initially pleading not guilty to the charges against him, Azari changed his mind last April and entered a plea of guilty to charges of wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and conspiracy to commit hacking. He was scheduled to be sentenced at the end of this month but recently delayed his sentencing hearing to a later date.

But while Azari may soon be facing justice, his clients — that is, whoever hired him to conduct his digital espionage efforts — appear to be getting off scot-free. So far, Azari has only revealed the identity of one client — the now defunct fintech company Wirecard, which went bankrupt in 2020 after revealing a large accounting hole that critics said was evidence of a global, multi-billion dollar fraud. Whoever else may have hired Azari to spearhead his myriad snooping campaigns is still a total mystery because, despite pleas from prosecutors and victims, the hacker refuses to name names.

That said, a court filing that popped up last year showed that, according to prosecutors, Azari’s clients included “Israeli, European, and U.S. companies,” the Wall Street Journal has reported. Nobody seems to know which companies those are, and nobody else has been charged in connection to Azari’s case.

Yet even if we can’t say for certain who hired Azari to coordinate the hacking activities, here’s some information that seems potentially relevant: the targets of one of the hacking schemes that Azari spearheaded were members of environmental groups deeply critical of energy giant ExxonMobil. The group, the Rockefeller Family Fund, is a charity organisation that has been one of the key pushers of the #exxonknew campaign — an activist campaign that accuses the oil giant of having known about the impacts of climate change since as far back as the 1970s. Critics allege that, instead of doing something about climate change, Exxon hid the information to protect its own business interests.

On Wednesday, following the publication of the Wall Street Journal’s latest story on the hacking scandal, Lee Wasserman, head of the Rockefeller Family Foundation, tweeted: “Big story traces hacking of #exxonknew advocates & how @exxon & its enablers are using likely hacked info to fend off accountability for what is, in my humble opinion, the greatest corp deception of all time.”

ExxonMobil has consistently denied any knowledge of or involvement in the hacking campaign that targeted environmental activists — a pattern it stuck to Wednesday. When reached for comment by Gizmodo, an Exxon representative provided the following statement: “Mr. Wasserman’s claims regarding our organisation are completely false. ExxonMobil has no knowledge of Azari, had no involvement in any hacking activities and has not been accused of any wrongdoing. To be clear, ExxonMobil has done nothing wrong.”

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