Crypto exchange Coinbase hired mercenaries who sold spyware to Saudi Arabia and Sudan —then fired them after backlash

The authoritarian regime of Sudan was one Hacking Team client.

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The authoritarian regime of Sudan was one Hacking Team client.
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REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

  • Coinbase parted ways with staffers after reports linked them to a firm that sold spyware to Saudi Arabia and the FBI.
  • The staff joined Coinbase as part of the acquisition of Neutrino. Some Neutrino employees were part of a vendor called Hacking Team, which BreakerMag said had a list of authoritarian clients.
  • “We did not properly evaluate everything from the perspective of our mission and values as a crypto company,” Coinbase’s co-founder said.

Coinbase, the US cryptocurrency exchange, says it parted ways with some staffers after reports linked them to a firm that sold spyware to the FBI and to “repressive regimes” that used the tools to “monitor and endanger journalists, activists, and political dissidents.”

The allegations were revealed, among others, by BreakerMag, which said in a February 26 article that the staff members joined Coinbase as part of the company’s acquisition of Neutrino earlier that month. Some Neutrino employees were formerly part of a vendor called Hacking Team.

Hacking Team sold spyware to authoritarian states including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, and Sudan, as well as to the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration in the US, BreakerMag alleged. The Washington Post has linked Hacking Team to a Saudi group that played a role in the government’s alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In a blog post on Monday, Coinbase co-founder Brian Armstrong wrote that “we had a gap in our diligence process” in acquiring Neutrino:

“While we looked hard at the technology and security of the Neutrino product, we did not properly evaluate everything from the perspective of our mission and values as a crypto company. We took some time to dig further into this over the past week, and together with the Neutrino team have come to an agreement: those who previously worked at Hacking Team (despite the fact that they have no current affiliation with Hacking Team), will transition out of Coinbase.”

In an email to Business Insider, a Coinbase spokesman declined to comment beyond the blog post.