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Report: FBI weighed operational use of Israeli firm NSO’s Pegasus spyware

Agency said to have written of its intentions to Israeli Defense Ministry; it previously said it purchased the software for learning purposes only

An Illustration of a man holding his phone with an NSO Group logo on a computer screen at the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An Illustration of a man holding his phone with an NSO Group logo on a computer screen at the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The FBI wrote to the Israeli government in 2018 that it intended to use Pegasus, the infamous phone-hacking software, to collect phone data for ongoing investigations, according to a new report.

The New York Times said Thursday that an official within the FBI’s operational and technology division wrote in a letter to the Defense Ministry that the bureau’s purchase of the spyware was “for the collection of data from mobile devices for the prevention and investigation of crimes and terrorism, in compliance with privacy and national security laws.”

The report indicated that the agency ended up testing the software internally but likely did not use it.

But the stated intentions appear to contradict an FBI statement made in February to The Guardian that it had purchased the software exclusively for “product testing and evaluation.”

NSO, the Israeli firm responsible for developing Pegasus, was engulfed in controversy in July 2021 over reports that tens of thousands of human rights activists, journalists, politicians, and business executives worldwide were listed as potential targets of its Pegasus software.

Smartphones infected with Pegasus are essentially turned into pocket spying devices, allowing the user to read the target’s messages, look through their photos, track their location and even turn on their camera and microphone without them knowing.

NSO says it sells Pegasus only to governments to fight crime and terrorism. All sales require approval from the Defense Ministry. It insists it has safeguards in place to prevent abuse and that it has terminated several contracts due to the inappropriate use of Pegasus.

A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli tech company NSO Group, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, on August 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

The FBI’s purchase of the software was initially revealed in January. Since then, the FBI has asserted that it only purchased Pegasus to assess how rivals of the US may put it to use.

“The FBI purchased a license to explore potential future legal use of the NSO product and potential security concerns the product poses,” Cathy L. Milhoan, an FBI spokesperson, told the New York Times. “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 operationally in any investigation.”

On Wednesday, opposition lawmakers advanced a bill in the Knesset calling for the establishment of a state inquiry into media claims the Israel Police used Pegasus to conduct extrajudicial spying against dozens of public officials, activists, and citizens. Justice officials have looked into the allegations and said they found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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