WASHINGTON – The FBI informed the Israeli government in a 2018 letter that it purchased Pegasus, the infamous hacking tool, to collect data from cell phones to aid ongoing investigations, the clearest documentary evidence to date that the office evaluated using spyware as a law enforcement tool.
The description of the FBI’s intended use of Pegasus came in a letter from a senior FBI official to the Israeli Ministry of Defense that was reviewed by the New York Times. Pegasus is produced by an Israeli company, NSO Group, which must obtain approval from the Israeli government before it can sell the hack tool to a foreign government.
The 2018 letter, written by an official in the FBI’s operations technology division, stated that the office 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 law. on privacy and national security. “
Times revealed in January that the FBI bought Pegasus in 2018 and tested for spyware at a secret facility in New Jersey over the next two years.
Since the article was published, FBI officials have acknowledged that they have considered deploying Pegasus, but pointed out that the office bought the spying tool primarily to test and evaluate it, in part to assess how they might use it opponents. They said the Bureau has never used spyware in any operation.
During a Congressional hearing in March, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said the office purchased a “limited license” for testing and evaluation “as part of our routine responsibilities to evaluate available technologies. , not only from a perspective of could one day be used legally, but also, more importantly, what are the safety concerns raised by those products.
“So, very different from using it to investigate someone,” he said.
The Times revealed that the FBI had also received a demonstration from NSO of a different hack 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 Phantoms. It wasn’t until last summer that the FBI and the Justice Department decided not to use NSO hacking tools in operations.
The FBI has paid about $ 5 million to the NSO since the office first bought Pegasus.
The Times is suing the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act for office documents related to the purchase, testing, and possible implementation of the NSO’s spyware tools. During a court hearing last month, a federal judge set an August 31 deadline for the FBI to produce all relevant documents or be scorned. Government lawyers said the office had so far identified more than 400 pages of documents that responded to the request.
The FBI letter to the NSO, dated Dec 11, 4, 2018, stated that “the United States government will not sell, deliver, or otherwise transfer to any other party under any conditions without the prior approval of the government of Israel.”
Cathy L. Milhoan, an FBI spokesperson, said the office “works diligently to keep up with emerging technologies and the craft.”
“The FBI has purchased a license to explore the potential future legal use of the NSO product and potential security concerns that the product poses,” he continued. “As part of this process, the FBI has met the requirements of the Israeli Export Control Agency. After testing and evaluation, the FBI has chosen not to use the product operationally in any investigation. “
The January Times article revealed that the CIA in 2018 arranged and paid for the government of Djibouti to acquire Pegasus to assist its government in counter-terrorism operations, despite longstanding concerns over human rights violations. in that country.
Pegasus is a so-called no-click hack tool: it can remotely extract anything from a target’s cell phone, including photos, contacts, messages and video recordings, without the user having to click on a phishing link to allow 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 that have used spyware as part of investigations into terrorist networks, pedophile circuits, and drug kingpins. But it has also been abused by authoritarian and democratic governments alike to spy on journalists, human rights activists and political dissidents.
Tuesday the head of the Spanish intelligence agency what expelled after recent revelations that Spanish officials took sides and were victims of the Pegasus spyware.
The dismissal of the official, Paz Esteban, came just days after the Spanish government claimed that the cell phones of senior Spanish officials, including Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles, had been penetrated by Pegasus last year. . It was also recently revealed that the Spanish government had used Pegasus to break into the cell phones of Catalan separatist politicians.
Israel used the tool as a bargaining chip in diplomatic negotiations, particularly in secret talks that led to the so-called Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and many of its historic Arab opponents.
In November, the Biden administration put NSO and another Israeli company on a “Black list” of companies prohibited from doing business with American companies. The Commerce Department said corporate spyware tools have “enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists and activists outside their sovereign borders to undermine silence dissent “.
Marco Mazzetti reported by Washington, e Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv.