FBI Told Israel It Wanted Pegasus Hacking Tool For Investigations

WASHINGTON – The FBI informed the Israeli government in a 2018 letter that it had purchased Pegasus, the notorious hacking tool, to collect cell phone data to help with ongoing investigations, the clearest documentary evidence to date that the department considered using spyware as a tool. of law enforcement.

The FBI’s description of its intended use of Pegasus came in a letter from a senior FBI official to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, which was reviewed by The New York Times. Pegasus is produced by an Israeli company, NSO Group, which needs to get Israeli government approval before it can sell the hacking tool to a foreign government.

The 2018 letter, written by an official in the FBI’s operational technology division, stated that the agency intended to use Pegasus “for the collection of data from mobile devices for the prevention and investigation of crime and terrorism, in compliance with the laws of privacy and national security. .”

The Times revealed in January that the FBI had purchased Pegasus in 2018 and, over the next two years, tested the spyware at a secret facility in New Jersey.

Since the article was published, FBI officials have acknowledged that they considered deploying Pegasus, but emphasized that the agency purchased the spy tool primarily to test and evaluate it — in part to assess how adversaries might use it. They said the agency never used spyware in any operations.

During a congressional hearing in March, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said the agency had purchased a “limited license” for testing and evaluation “as part of our routine responsibilities to evaluate existing technologies, not just from a that they could be used legally someday, but also, more importantly, what are the security concerns raised by these products.”

“So very different from using it to investigate anyone,” he said.

The Times revealed that the FBI also received a demo from the NSO of a different hacking tool, Phantom, which can do what Pegasus cannot – target and infiltrate US cell phone numbers. After the demonstration, government lawyers spent years debating whether to buy and deploy the Phantom. It wasn’t until last summer that the FBI and Justice Department decided not to deploy NSO hacking tools into operations.

The FBI has paid approximately $5 million to NSO since the agency bought Pegasus.

The Times sued the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act over office documents related to the purchase, testing and possible deployment of NSO’s spyware tools. During a court hearing last month, a federal judge set an August 31 deadline for the FBI to file all relevant documents or be held in contempt. Lawyers for the government said the agency has so far identified more than 400 pages of documents that responded to the request.

The FBI letter to the NSO, dated December 4, 2018, stated that “the United States government will not sell, deliver or transfer to any other party under any condition without the prior approval of the government of Israel.”

Cathy L. Milhoan, a spokeswoman for the FBI, said the agency “works diligently to stay abreast of emerging technologies and commerce.”

“The FBI purchased a license to explore the potential future legal use of the NSO product and the potential security concerns the product poses,” she continued. “As part of this process, the FBI complied with the requirements of the Israel Export Control Agency. After testing and evaluation, the FBI chose not to use the product operationally in any investigation.”

The Times article in January revealed that the CIA in 2018 organized and paid for the government of Djibouti to acquire Pegasus to help its government with counterterrorism operations, despite long-standing concerns about human rights abuses there.

Pegasus is a click-free hacking tool — it can remotely extract everything from a target’s phone, including photos, contacts, messages, and video recordings, without the user having to click on a phishing link to give Pegasus remote access. It can also turn phones into secret tracking and recording devices, allowing the phone to spy on its owner.

NSO has sold Pegasus to dozens of countries, which have used the spyware as part of investigations into terrorist networks, pedophile networks 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 Spain’s intelligence agency was ousted following recent revelations that Spanish authorities mobilized and fell victim to the Pegasus spyware.

The firing of the official, Paz Esteban, came days after the Spanish government said the cell phones of senior Spanish officials, including Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles, were penetrated last year by Pegasus. It was also recently revealed that the Spanish government used Pegasus to penetrate the cell phones of Catalan separatist politicians.

Israel used the tool as a bargaining chip in diplomatic negotiations, particularly in 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 placed NSO and another Israeli company on a “blacklist” of companies banned from doing business with US companies. The Commerce Department said the companies’ spyware tools “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.”

Mark Mazzetti reported from Washington, and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv.

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