The FBI told Israel that it wanted a Pegasus hacking tool to investigate

The FBI told Israel that it wanted a Pegasus hacking tool to investigate

Washington – The FBI informed the Israeli government in a 2018 letter that it had purchased Pegasus, a notorious hacking tool to assist in an ongoing investigation to collect data from cell phones, the clearest documentary evidence to date that the bureau valued the spyware as a weapon. Law enforcement agencies.

A targeted description of Pegasus’s use by the FBI came in a letter from a senior FBI official to the Israeli Ministry of Defense that was discussed by The New York Times. Pegasus is run by an Israeli firm, NSO Group, which must obtain consent from the Israeli government before it can sell the hacking tool to a foreign government.

The 2018 letter, written by an official from the FBI’s Office of Operations Technology, states that the bureau intended to use Pegasus to “collect data from mobile devices to prevent and investigate crime and terrorism, in accordance with its privacy and national security laws.” . ”

The Times revealed in January that the FBI had bought Pegasus in 2018 and for the next two years, tested a spy program at a New Jersey secret facility.

From the day the article was published, FBI officials acknowledged that they were considering the Pegasus layout, but stressed that the bureau had purchased the spy tool primarily to test and evaluate it – in part to assess how opponents might use it. They said the bureau had never used spyware in any of the operations.

During a congressional hearing in March, FBI Director Christopher A. Ray said the bureau had purchased a “limited license” for testing and evaluation “as part of our routine responsibility to evaluate technologies that exist, and not just from a perspective.” Can they ever be used legally, but also, more importantly, what are the safety concerns posed by these products.

“So it’s very different to use it to investigate someone,” he said.

The Times revealed that the FBI also received a demonstration from the NSO about a different hacking tool, the Phantom, that could do what Pegasus could not do – target and penetrate U.S. cell phone numbers. After the demonstration, government lawyers have been debating for years whether to acquire and deploy the Phantom. Until last summer, the FBI and the Department of Justice decided not to use NSO hacking tools in operations.

The FBI paid the NSO about $ 5 million after the bureau first purchased the Pegasus.

The Times has sued the FBI for its bureaucratic documentation of NSO spyware acquisition, testing and possible use. During a court hearing last month, a federal judge scheduled the FBI for Aug. 31 to present all relevant documents or be defamed. Government attorneys said the bureau had so far identified more than 400 pages of documents responding to the request.

The FBI letter to the NSO, dated December 4, 2018, states that “the United States Government will not sell, supply or otherwise transfer to any party on any terms without the prior consent of the Government of Israel.”

Katie L. Milhoan, an FBI spokesman, said the bureau was “working diligently to raise awareness of emerging technologies and trade.”

“The FBI has obtained a license to investigate the potential future legal use of the NSO product and to address potential product safety concerns,” he continued. “As part of this process, the FBI met the requirements of the Israeli Export Control Agency. After testing and evaluation, the FBI chose not to use the product promptly in any of the investigations.

A January Times article revealed that the CIA had arranged in 2018 and paid the Djiboutian government to buy Pegasus to assist its government in counterterrorism operations, despite long-standing concerns about human rights abuses there.

Pegasus is a so-called zero-click hacking tool – it can remotely remove everything from the target cell phone, including photos, contacts, messages and videos, so that users do not have to click on a phishing link to access Pegasus remotely. It can also turn phones into surveillance and covert recorders, allowing the phone to be tracked by the owner.

The NSO has sold Pegasus to dozens of countries that have used spyware to investigate terrorist networks, pedophile links and drug investigations. But it has also been abused by authoritarian and democratic governments to spy on journalists, human rights defenders and political dissidents.

On Tuesday, the head of the Spanish intelligence agency was fired after a recent revelation that Spanish officials had been deployed and were victims of Pegasus spyware.

The official, Paz Esteban, was released a few days after the Spanish government said the cell phones of high-ranking Spanish officials, including Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles, had been hacked by Pegasus last year. It was also recently revealed that the Spanish government used Pegasus to hack into the cell phones of Catalan separatist politicians.

Israel has used this tool as a bargaining chip in diplomatic negotiations, especially in secret negotiations, which led to the so-called Abrahamic Agreement, which normalized relations between Israel and several of its historical Arab adversaries.

In November, the Biden administration added the NSO and another Israeli firm to a “blacklist” of companies banned from doing business with US companies. The Commerce Department said companies’ spy tools “allowed common governments to carry out transnational repression, a practice of authoritarian governments aimed at dissidents, journalists and activists outside their sovereign borders to silence dissent.”

Mark Mazett Reported from Washington and Ronen Bergman From Tel Aviv.

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