Feb 2, 2022 - Politics & Policy

FBI confirms it tested NSO spyware for possible surveillance use in U.S.

Photo of NSO Group's logo and name printed in black on an orange wall
Israeli cyber company NSO Group's branch in the Arava Desert in Sapir, Israel. Photo: Amir Levy via Getty Images

The FBI tested Israeli technology firm NSO Group's Pegasus spyware for possible use in criminal investigations, the agency confirmed to Axios Wednesday.

Why it matters: The FBI and DOJ were at the time probing Pegasus to assess whether it was used to illegally hack into phones in the U.S., per Reuters. The software has come under fire for its role in hacking smartphones belonging to human rights activists, political dissidents and reporters around the world, per investigations by the international journalism consortium Forbidden Stories.

What they're saying: An FBI spokesperson said in a statement that the spyware was used for "product testing and evaluation only."

  • "[W]e routinely identify, evaluate, and test technical solutions and problems for a variety of reasons, including possible operational and security concerns they might pose in the wrong hands," they said.
  • "There was no operational use in support of any investigation."
  • "Since our testing and evaluation is complete, and we chose not to proceed with use of the software, the license is no longer active," the spokesperson added. "Accordingly, the software is no longer functional."
  • NSO Group declined to comment.

How it happened: NSO has said that Pegasus cannot hack U.S. phones, but the New York Times first reported last week that NSO computer engineers helped test a version of the software for FBI officials in June 2019.

  • The new tool, called Phantom, could give the FBI access to data on any number in the U.S. and was designed for use by U.S. law enforcement, per documents obtained by Motherboard.
  • Discussion of legal implications went back and forth for years, during which the FBI renewed its contract for the system and amassed roughly $5 million in NSO fees, according to the Times.
  • The FBI decided not to move forward with the software last summer, around the same time Forbidden Stories released its reports on Pegasus' impact, the Times said.

The big picture: In November, the Commerce Department added NSO to its black list of companies engaging in activities contrary to the U.S.'s national security or foreign policy interests.

  • Apple and Facebook have filed lawsuits against NSO over the firm's alleged surveillance of their users.
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