The FBI spent about two years toying with the idea of deploying advanced spyware developed by an Israeli company before finally dropping that plan, according to a new report.
A report in The New York Times Magazine said that the FBI tested the software beginning in 2019 with the goal of using it for domestic surveillance, but finally dropped the plan last year.
The FBI bought the spyware, called Pegasus, in 2019, according to The Times. It also tested a newer software called Phantom during that time.
Pegasus was designed by NSO, an Israeli company, and could not hack into American phone numbers. Phantom, which could, was designed by the same company. Israel said that the Phantom spyware was only allowed to be licensed to the U.S. government.
The Times said a brochure it was given on Phantom said the software allowed agencies to “turn your target’s smartphone into an intelligence gold mine.”
Pegasus was used globally beginning in 2011, the Times report said.
It and Phantom are both different from other forms of spyware because they do not require any action on the part of a user – such as clicking on a malicious link – in order for their device to be spied upon.
The Times report said the software was used in the capture of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, and to smash a multi-nation child abuse ring.
The software was also used, the Times said, against journalists, government critics, human rights activists, and against Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by Saudi Arabian agents in 2018.
Do you think the cyber snooping happens all the time?
The FBI told the Times that it checks out technologies “not just to explore a potential legal use but also to combat crime and to protect both the American people and our civil liberties.
“That means we routinely identify, evaluate and test technical solutions and services for a variety of reasons, including possible operational and security concerns they might pose in the wrong hands,” an FBI spokesman said, according to the Times report.
Inside the battle to control Pegasus, the world’s most powerful cyberweapon: A yearlong investigation by @ronenbergman and @MarkMazzettiNYT reveals how Israel used sales of the spyware to advance its interests around the world. https://t.co/hHwLDTpUGT
— The New York Times (@nytimes) January 28, 2022
Although the FBI has decided not to go forward with the spyware, the Times reported that the equipment remains in an FBI building.
The Times report said that as the FBI tested what the systems could do, it ran up a $5 million bill with the Israeli company.
The U.S. decision not to embrace the spyware was followed by a total repudiation of the company to the point where the Commerce Department put NSO on a list of companies whose actions were considered contrary to America’s best interests.
“The people aiming their arrows against NSO,” said Yigal Unna, director-general of the Israel National Cyber Directorate at the time the Times reporting was done for its report, “are actually aiming at the blue and white flag hanging behind it.”
Although America is shunning the spyware, the Times report said Pegasus is being sold to Poland, Hungary, India and other nations.