WASHINGTON – The FBI informed the Israeli government in a 2018 letter that it had purchased the infamous hacking tool Pegasus to collect data from mobile phones to assist in the ongoing investigation, the most clear documentary evidence to date that the bureau uses spyware as a tool. . Of law enforcement.
The FBI’s description of Pegasus’ intentional use comes in a letter to Israel’s Defense Ministry from a top FBI official, which was reviewed by The New York Times. Pegasus is manufactured by the Israeli firm, NSO Group, which needs approval from the Israeli government before selling hacking tools to foreign governments.
The 2018 letter, written by an official from the FBI’s Operational Technology Department, states that the Bureau intends to use Pegasus to collect data from mobile devices for the prevention and investigation of crimes and terrorism in compliance with privacy and national security laws. “
The Times revealed in January that the FBI bought Pegasus in 2018 and tested spyware at a secret facility in New Jersey for the next two years.
Following the publication of the article, FBI officials acknowledged that they intended to deploy Pegasus but insisted that the Bureau purchase the spy tool primarily to test and evaluate it – in part to evaluate how opponents could use it. They said the bureau never used spyware in any operation.
During a congressional hearing in March, FBI Director Christopher A. Ray said the bureau has purchased “limited licenses” for testing and evaluation “not just from a perspective, but as part of our routine responsibilities to evaluate the technologies that are out there. Can they one day be used legally, but What matters is the safety concerns of those products. “
“So, very different than using it to investigate anyone,” he said.
The Times revealed that the FBI also received a demonstration from the NSO of a separate hacking tool, the Phantom, which Pegasus could not – target and infiltrate US cellphone numbers. Following the demonstration, prosecutors spent years debating whether to purchase and deploy the Phantom. Until last summer, the FBI and the Department of Justice decided not to deploy NSO hacking tools.
The FBI has paid the NSO an estimated 5 million since the bureau first bought the Pegasus.
The Times has sued the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act for bureau documents relating to the purchase, testing and possible deployment of NSO spyware tools. During a court hearing last month, a federal judge set an August deadline. 31 All relevant documents for the FBI are made or kept in content. Prosecutors said the bureau has so far identified more than 400 pages of documents that responded to the request.
FBI letter to NSO, Dec. 4, 2018 stated that “the United States Government shall not sell, deliver or otherwise transfer to any other party under any condition without the prior approval of the Government of Israel.”
FBI spokeswoman Kathy L. The bureau “works diligently to stay close to emerging technology and tradecraft,” Milhon said.
“The FBI purchased the license to investigate the potential future legal use of the NSO product and the potential security concerns of the product,” she continued. “As part of this process, the FBI has met the requirements of the Israeli Export Control Agency. After testing and evaluation, the FBI chose not to use the product effectively in any investigation. “
A January article in the Times stated that the CIA had arranged and paid for the acquisition of Pegasus in 2018 to help the Djiboutian government carry out 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’s mobile phone, including photos, contacts, messages and video recordings, without giving the user a phishing link to give Pegasus remote access. It can also turn the phone into a tracking and secret recording device, allowing the phone to spy on its owner.
The NSO has sold Pegasus to dozens of countries that have used spyware as part of investigations into terrorist networks, pedophile rings and drug kingpins. But it has also been misused by dictatorial and democratic governments to spy on journalists, human rights activists and political dissidents.
On Tuesday, the head of Spain’s intelligence agency was fired following a recent revelation that Spanish officers were both deployed and victims of Pegasus spyware.
The Spanish government said the cellphones of senior Spanish officials, including Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles, arrived just days after they were penetrated by Pegasus last year. It was also recently revealed that the Spanish government used Pegasus to smuggle the cellphones of Catalan separatist politicians.
Israel has used the tool as a bargaining chip in diplomatic negotiations, especially in the secret negotiations that led to the so-called Abraham Accord that normalized relations between Israel and some of its historic Arab opponents.
In November, the Biden administration placed the NSO and other Israeli firms on a “blacklist” of companies banned from doing business with American companies. The Commerce Department said the companies’ spyware tools “have enabled foreign governments to carry out international repression, which is the practice of dictatorial governments targeting dissidents, journalists and activists outside their sovereign borders to appease dissidents.”
Mark Mazzetti Report from Washington, and Ronen Bergman From Tel Aviv.