The FBI told Israel that it wanted Pegasus’ surveillance tool for investigation

WASHINGTON – The FBI informed the Israeli government in a 2018 letter that it had purchased Pegasus, a popular spy tool, to collect data from mobile phones to support ongoing investigations, the clearest textual evidence to date that the office weighed using spyware as tools. of law enforcement.

The FBI’s information on Pegasus’ intended use came in a letter from a senior FBI official to the Israeli Ministry of Defense which was reviewed by The New York Times. Pegasus is produced by an Israeli company, the NSO Group, which needs to obtain approval from the Israeli government before selling the hacking equipment to a foreign government.

The 2018 letter, written by an official in the FBI’s technology technology unit, stated that the office intends to use Pegasus “for data collection from mobile devices for the prevention and investigation of crime and terrorism, in compliance with privacy and security laws. national. ”

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

Since the publication of the article, FBI officials have admitted that they considered sending Pegasus but insisted that the office purchased a spy tool specifically for testing and evaluation – in part to assess how opponents could use it. They said the office had never used spyware in any operation.

During a parliamentary session in March, FBI director Christopher A. Wray said the office had purchased “small licenses” for testing and evaluation “as part of our routine responsibilities to evaluate technologies that are external, not just from The prospect of being able to use them one day legally, but also, more importantly, what security concerns these products offer. ”

“So, it’s very different from using it to detect anyone,” he said.

The Times revealed that the FBI also received protests by the NSO of a different spy tool, the Phantom, which could do what Pegasus can’t – target and infiltrate American mobile phone numbers. After the protests, government attorneys spent many years discussing whether to buy and send a Phantom. It was not until last summer that the FBI and the Law Department decided not to send NSO hacking tools into operation.

The FBI has paid about $ 5 million to the NSO since the office bought Pegasus for the first time.

The Times newspaper has sued the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act for office documents related to the purchase, trial and possibly deployment of NSO spyware tools. During a court hearing last month, a federal judge set a August 31 deadline for the FBI to issue all necessary documents or contempt. State attorneys said the office had so far identified more than 400 pages of documents that responded to the request.

An FBI letter to the NSO, dated December 4, 2018, stated that “the US government will not sell, submit or transfer otherwise to any other party on any terms without the prior approval of the Israeli government.”

Cathy L. Milhoan, a spokeswoman for the FBI, said the office was “working hard to stay abreast of emerging technologies and businesses.”

“The FBI bought a license to investigate the possible future use of NSO products and security issues that could expose the product,” 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 in any investigation.”

A Times article in January revealed that the CIA in 2018 planned and paid for the Djibouti government to get Pegasus to assist his government in counter-terrorism operations, despite long-standing concerns about human rights abuses there.

Pegasus is a tool called zero detection – it can extract everything from the target phone remotely, including photos, contacts, messages and video recordings, without the user clicking the phishing link to give Pegasus remote access. It can also turn the phone into surveillance and secret recording devices, allowing the phone to spy on its owner.

The NSO has sold Pegasus to several countries, which have used spyware as part of an investigation into terrorist networks, children’s rings and drug lords. But it has also been misused by authoritarian and democratic governments to spy on journalists, human rights activists, and political opponents.

On Tuesday, the head of a Spanish spy agency was fired following a recent revelation that Spanish officials had circulated and were victims of Pegasus’ spy programs.

The dismissal of the officer, Paz Esteban, came just days after the Spanish government said phone calls from senior Spanish officials, including Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles, had been leaked last year by Pegasus. It was also recently revealed that the Spanish government had used Pegasus to intercept cell phones of separatist Catalan politicians.

Israel has used the tool as a means of dialogue in diplomatic talks, especially in secret talks that led to the so-called Abrahamic Accords that weakened relations between Israel and some of its historic Arab enemies.

In November, the Biden administration placed the NSO and other Israeli companies on the “blacklist” of companies that are banned from doing business with US companies. The Department of Commerce said the companies’ intelligence tools “enabled foreign governments to carry out international repression, which is a system of authoritarian regimes targeting dissidents, journalists and activists outside their free borders to silence the opposition.”

Mark Mazzetti reports from Washington, and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv.

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