The U.S. intelligence community is accused of acquiring spyware technology from the Israeli tech firm NSO Group that could snoop on just about anyone through their smartphone.
The alleged procurement of the technology came before the Biden administration blacklisted the tech last year.
NSO Group’s Pegasus product allows access to a smartphone user’s messages, camera, and microphone without action by the victim, according to the Pegasus Project, an investigation organized by the news outlet Forbidden Stories. Pegasus has attracted attention from surveillance-focused watchdogs and from governments interested in becoming users.
In 2019, the FBI obtained the technology but has not used it, according to a report from The New York Times.
The FBI told The Washington Times there was no operational use of the tech in support of any investigation and it procured a limited license for “product testing and evaluation only.”
“The FBI works diligently to stay abreast of emerging technologies and tradecraft—not just to explore a potential legal use but also to combat crime and to protect both the American people and our civil liberties,” the FBI said in a statement. “That means we 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.”
Details about American law enforcement and national security agencies’ relationship with NSO Group have been murky. According to the report, the CIA arranged and paid for Djibouti to acquire the Pegasus product to assist in anti-terrorism efforts. The CIA declined to comment.
The NSO Group has faced a publicity nightmare in recent years as watchdogs and investigators have uncovered how their spyware technology has been used. The Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab alleged in 2018 that Pegasus spyware technology was used in operations in 45 countries.
Last September, Citizen Lab published a report about an NSO Group exploit affecting Apple devices, and Apple subsequently issued a security update.
The Biden administration sought to blacklist the NSO Group in November 2021 by adding it to the Commerce Department’s “Entity List,” which details foreign people and enterprises facing restrictions on their business as a result of national security concerns.
The NSO Group did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
An NSO spokesperson previously said that the firm would advocate for the blacklisting decision to be overturned and noted that, “our technologies support U.S. national security interests and policies by preventing terrorism and crime.”