The United States Federal Police (FBI) reportedly partnered with the Israeli firm NSO in 2019. An agreement that would have allowed the FBI to exploit the controversial Pegasus spyware.
As a reminder, the Israeli company NSO is at the origin of the Pegasus spyware. It generated the infection of tens of thousands of smartphones. Most belong to journalists or political opponents.
An agreement signed in 2019
The FBI’s acquisition of Pegasus was first reported by The New York Times.
According to information published by the newspaper, the federal office would have signed a contract with the NSO group in 2019. The FBI would thus have installed and tested Pegasus for possible use in the context of criminal investigations.
Once deployed, the Pegasus spyware is powerful enough to secretly infect iPhones and mobile devices. It can thus access tons of victim’s private information like their text messages, contacts, cameras and microphone.
A contract filled with disagreements
A source familiar with the FBI deal told the Guardian on condition of anonymity. She said the contract between the FBI and NSO came about after a “long process” of negotiations between the two parties.
One of the major disagreements in the contract was how much control NSO would retain over its software. In general, NSO places sensors on its technology. Thus, the Israeli company receives an alert if its technology is moved by a government client. According to the source, the FBI refused to have the technology equipped with these sensors. The government agency also issued a negative opinion that the deal called for NSO’s own engineers to carry out the installation. Finally, the FBI did not want to integrate the spyware into its own systems.
In a statement provided to the Guardian, the office said it had been granted a “limited license” to access Pegasus for “testing and evaluating the product only”.
The FBI reassures
The New York Times reveals that several American agencies, such as the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and the secret services, have also negotiated with the Israeli firm. But only the FBI would have taken the unilateral decision to invest in the Pegasus solution.
The federal judicial police service, however, wants to reassure. According to the latter, he did not use Pegasus in any of his investigations.
“The FBI works diligently to keep abreast of emerging technologies and trades – not only to explore potential legal use, but also to fight crime and protect both the American people and our civil liberties. This means that we regularly identify, evaluate and test technical solutions and issues for a variety of reasons, including possible operational and security concerns that they might end up in the wrong hands. There was no operational use in support of an investigation, the FBI was granted a limited license to test and evaluate the product only,” the FBI said in a press release sent to Washington. Post.
This revelation caused many reactions. As a reminder, the NSO company has been the subject of extensive scrutiny by various government agencies in the United States. The company is also blacklisted in the United States, which prevents it from operating freely with other tech giants in the country. Another example, Apple, has already sued NSO for having hacked its devices.