Released FBI documents show effort to deploy Pegasus spyware News
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Released FBI documents show effort to deploy Pegasus spyware

Several FBI documents were released by the New York Times Saturday highlighting an effort by the FBI in 2020-2021 to secure and deploy Pegasus spyware.

Pegasus spyware, developed by the NSO Group, is a zero-click hacking tool that can invade a target’s mobile phone and extract messages, photos, contacts, messages and video recordings. Numerous governments, both autocracies and democracies, have  purchased and deployed Pegasus in recent years. It has been used by police and intelligence services to hack the phones of drug kingpins and terrorists, but gained notoriety when it was revealed that governments, like Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Hungary and India, had deployed it against political dissidents, journalists and human rights workers.

The FBI insisted that their acquisition of the software was solely for “research and development” or “to be able to figure out how bad guys could use it.” However, documents released by the New York Times, following a Freedom of Information lawsuit, highlight an effort by the FBI to deploy the spyware in criminal investigations. In particular, documents 93 and 94 show that the Criminal Investigations Department had prepared briefs regarding the “assessment and evaluation of NSO tool for potential use in criminal investigations.”

The FBI ultimately decided not to deploy the software but stated within their legal brief  that “simply because the FBI ultimately determined not to deploy the NSO tool in support of criminal investigations does not mean that the FBI will not deploy similar tools in the future.”

The NSO tool has been criticized heavily by governments and human rights organizations. The US Department of Commerce has stated:

These entities [NSO Group] developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers. These tools have also enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments.

Amnesty International has expressed similar concerns, stating the NSO Group’s software has been used for “unlawful surveillance and human rights abuses.”