US lawmakers demand info from DEA, FBI on use of Israeli spyware

Adam Schiff, Ron Wyden express concern over agencies’ use of remote hacking tools, say American public deserves details on the scope of their deployment

Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, listens as the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol continues to reveal its findings of a year-long investigation, at the Capitol in Washington, June 13, 2022. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, listens as the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol continues to reveal its findings of a year-long investigation, at the Capitol in Washington, June 13, 2022. (Susan Walsh/AP)

US lawmakers are demanding information from national agencies on the extent of their use of Israeli spyware, according to a report in The New York Times this week.

The paper said California Representative Adam Schiff, head of the House Intelligence Committee, had sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration seeking details on the agency’s use of software known as Graphite, made by Israel’s Paragon cyber technology startup.

The DEA’s use of the tool was first reported by The Times earlier this month.

“Such use could have potential implications for US national security, as well as run contrary to efforts to deter the broad proliferation of powerful surveillance capabilities to autocratic regimes and others who may misuse them,” Schiff wrote to the agency.

Meanwhile, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who is on the Senate Intelligence Committee, contacted the FBI to get details on the agency’s testing of the infamous Pegasus software by Israel’s NSO Group, and what could be expected of the agency in the future. The FBI has acknowledged purchasing the software but said it did so only for testing purposes and to learn of the latest capabilities of such spyware.

The Times reported in November that several agency officials had sought to deploy it for use in certain cases, though such plans were eventually shelved.

“The American people have a right to know the scale of the FBI’s hacking activities and the rules that govern the use of this controversial surveillance technique,” Wyden said.

File: Sen. Ron Wyden at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool)

The Times’ report on the DEA’s use of Graphite was part of an exposé that said the global spyware industry was spiraling “out of control.”

Citing five unnamed individuals with knowledge of the matter, the report said the DEA was using the software by Paragon, a company backed by former prime minister Ehud Barak.

The spyware allows users to collect data backed up from an individual’s phone to the cloud.

The report cited a DEA official as saying the agency has only used it outside the US in its efforts to stop drug cartels. The DEA didn’t deny using the spyware, saying it was “using every lawful investigative tool available” in its pursuit of foreign-based drug traffickers.

The US blacklisted Israeli spyware firms NSO and Candiru late last year. According to the Times, the FBI had pushed in late 2020 and the first half of 2021 to use NSO’s infamous Pegasus program, considered among the most powerful tools of its kind, before it was banned. The tool has been sold to law enforcement agencies around the world, though critics charge it has also been used by governments and repressive regimes to track journalists, activists, dissidents and others.

In this June 19, 2017, file photo, a person types on a laptop keyboard in North Andover, Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

The Times found that Paragon and other firms — some employing former NSO employees and other Israeli tech workers — are filling the gap left by the blacklisting of NSO, developing software capable of copying the entire contents of an individual’s phone and using it to spy on the user.

Paragon was founded three years ago by Ehud Schneorson, a former commander of Israel Defense Forces’ vaunted signal intelligence unit 8200. Some of its employees formerly worked for NSO, according to the report, and ex-premier Barak sits on its board. Among its funders is US-based Battery Ventures, according to Start-up Nation Central.

Another company, Intellexa — founded in Greece by former Israeli military officer Tal Dilian, and already embroiled in a series of scandals of its own — has been authorized by Athens to sell its Predator spyware to Madagascar, a country with a history of rights violations.

Citing the Greek government, the report said Intellexa had also made a business proposal to sell products to Ukraine, which rejected the offer. It added that Predator was used in another dozen countries in 2021. Predator has been detected in Egypt, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Germany among  other countries, the NY Times reported, citing research by Meta as well as Canadian cybersecurity watchdog Citizen Lab.

In this file photo, a photographic illustration shows a mobile phone near the NSO Group company logo in the Israeli city of Netanya on February 9, 2022. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The program was also reportedly used in Greece against journalists and opposition figures, though the Greek government denies any involvement and considers the spyware illegal.

Before moving to Greece, Dilian had set up shop in Cyprus but ran afoul of the law in 2019 while demonstrating to Forbes magazine how software he was marketing could hack into nearby phones, as he drove in a van through the city of Larnaca.

Cypriot authorities issued an arrest warrant via global police agency Interpol after a video of the van went viral. Dilian eventually settled the matter through his attorney, paying a $1 million dollar fine, according to the report.

The White House is preparing an executive order to restrict use of spyware in the US, the report said, quoting an unnamed White House official who said it plans to prevent the use of tools that pose “counterintelligence and security risks” or that have been used “improperly” by governments outside the US.

Israel has tried unsuccessfully to get an answer from Washington on what its red lines are for the use of spyware, Defense Ministry Director-General Amir Eshel was quoted as saying.

Israel’s Defense Ministry closely vets sales of defense technology abroad, but Eshel noted that it had no control over companies set up by Israelis abroad, like Intellexa.

The Financial Times reported earlier this month that, shaken by past crises and short of customers and revenue, the notorious NSO Group is pleased about the expected imminent return of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, believing he will loosen restrictions on Israeli spyware exports to countries with problematic human rights records, chief among them Saudi Arabia.

The paper cited multiple sources in its report, which said the Israeli company that developed the controversial Pegasus tracking software is in danger of failing, having been embroiled in rights scandals around the world, shunned by the United States and increasingly by Europe as well, and facing increased Israeli measures that hamper its ability to sell its products to non-democratic countries.

The British news outlet cited multiple unnamed knowledgeable sources saying that as prime minister, Netanyahu nurtured intelligence software exports by using them as carrots as he sought to improve Israel’s clandestine security ties with countries like Saudi Arabia, India, and nations in the Gulf region and in East Africa.

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