WASHINGTON — The FBI informed the Israeli government in a 2018 letter that it had bought Pegasus, the notorious hacking tool, to collect data from cellphones to help ongoing investigations, the clearest documentary evidence to date that the bureau The use of spyware as a tool has been weighed by law enforcement.
The FBI’s description of the intended use of Pegasus came in a letter from a senior FBI official to the Israeli Defense Ministry that was reviewed by the New York Times. Pegasus is manufactured by an Israeli company, NSO Group, which must obtain Israeli government approval before selling the hacking tool to a foreign government.
The 2018 letter, written by an officer in the FBI’s operational technology division, said the FBI intended to use Pegasus “to collect data from mobile devices for the prevention and investigation of crime and terrorism in compliance with privacy and national security laws.” use .”
The times unveiled in January that the FBI bought Pegasus in 2018 and spent the next two years testing the spyware at an undisclosed facility in New Jersey.
Since the article’s publication, FBI officials have admitted they considered using Pegasus, but have stressed that the FBI bought the spy tool primarily to test and evaluate it — in part, to gauge how opponents could use it. They said the office never used the spyware in any operation.
During a congressional hearing in March, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said the FBI purchased a “limited license” to test and evaluate “as part of our routine responsibility to evaluate technology that exists, not just from the perspective of whether.” they could one day be used legally, but also, more importantly, what safety concerns are raised by these products.”
“So very different than using it to examine someone,” he said.
The Times revealed that the FBI had also received a demonstration from NSO of another hacking tool, Phantom, which can do what Pegasus cannot – target and infiltrate US cellphone numbers. For years after the demonstration, government lawyers debated buying and using Phantom. Just last summer, the FBI and Department of Justice decided not to use NSO hacking tools on the farm.
The FBI has paid approximately $5 million to NSO since the FBI first bought Pegasus.
The Times has sued the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act for office documents related to the purchase, testing and possible use of NSO spyware tools. During a court hearing last month, a federal judge gave the FBI until August 31 to produce all relevant documents or convict him. Government attorneys said the office has so far identified more than 400 pages of documents that responded to the request.
The FBI letter to NSO dated December 4, 2018 states: “Under no circumstances will the United States Government sell, supply or otherwise transfer to any other party without the prior consent of the Government of Israel.”
Cathy L. Milhoan, an FBI spokeswoman, said the bureau “works diligently to keep abreast of new technologies and commercial crafts.”
“The FBI has obtained a license to investigate potential future legal uses of the NSO product and potential safety concerns the product raises,” she continued. “As part of this process, the FBI complied with the requirements of the Israel Export Control Agency. After testing and evaluating, the FBI decided not to use the product operationally on any investigation.”
The January Times article revealed that in 2018 the CIA arranged for and paid for the Djibouti government to acquire Pegasus to assist its government in counter-terrorism operations, despite long-standing concerns about human rights abuses there.
Pegasus is a so-called zero-click hacking tool – it can remotely extract everything from a target’s cell phone, including photos, contacts, messages and video recordings, without the user having to click a phishing link to grant Pegasus remote access . It can also turn phones into tracking and secret recording devices, allowing the phone to spy on its owner.
NSO has sold Pegasus to dozens of countries that have used the spyware in investigations into terrorist networks, pedophile rings and drug lords. But it has also been abused by authoritarian and democratic governments to spy on journalists, human rights activists and political dissidents.
On Tuesday the head of the Spanish secret service was ousted following recent revelations that Spanish officials have both been using Pegasus spyware and have been victims of Pegasus spyware.
Official Paz Esteban’s sacking came days after the Spanish government said Pegasus had hacked the mobile phones of senior Spanish officials including Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles last year. It was also recently revealed that the Spanish government had used Pegasus to hack into the cellphones of Catalan separatist politicians.
Israel has used the tool as a bargaining chip in diplomatic negotiations, particularly the secret talks that led to the so-called Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several of its historic Arab adversaries.
In November, the Biden administration deployed NSO and another Israeli firm “Blacklist” of companies prohibited from doing business with American companies. The Commerce Department said the companies’ spyware tools have “enabled foreign governments to carry out transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists and activists outside their sovereign borders to silence dissent.”
Markus Mazzetti reported from Washington, and Ron Bergman from Tel Aviv.