It is widely regarded as the world’s most powerful spyware, which can reliably crack encrypted communications on iPhone and Android smartphones.
The software Pegasus, made by an Israeli company, NSO Group, has been able to track down terrorists and drug cartels. It has also been used against human rights activists, journalists and dissidents.
Now, an investigation published Friday in DailyExpertNews Magazine shows that Israel, which controls spyware exports, as well as conventional arms exports, has made Pegasus an important part of its national security strategy, using it to advance its interests. promotion around the world.
The years-long investigation, by Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti, also reports that the FBI spent years buying and testing NSO software with plans to use it for domestic surveillance, until the agency finally decided not to deploy the tools last year.
The Times found that the sale of Pegasus played a vital role in securing Arab countries’ support in Israel’s campaign against Iran and in negotiating the Abraham Accords, the 2020 diplomatic agreements, signed at a ceremony of the Trump White House, which ties into relations between Israel and some of its longtime Arab adversaries.
The US sought the cyber weapon for domestic use.
The US had also moved to acquire Pegasus, The Times found. The FBI bought the spyware in 2019 in an unprecedented deal, despite multiple reports that it had been used against activists and political opponents in other countries. It also spent two years discussing whether to implement a newer product called Phantom in the United States.
The discussions with the Justice Department and the FBI continued until last summer, when the FBI finally decided not to use NSO weapons.
But Pegasus equipment is still in a New Jersey building used by the FBI. And the company also gave the agency a demonstration of Phantom, which can hack US phone numbers.
A prospectus brochure obtained by The Times says Phantom allows US law enforcement and espionage agencies to “turn your target’s smartphone into an intelligence goldmine.”
The years-long Times investigation was based on interviews with government officials, intelligence and law enforcement leaders, cyber experts, business leaders and privacy activists in a dozen countries.
It tells the story of the rise of the NSO from a start-up that operated from a converted chicken coop on an agricultural cooperative to being blacklisted by the Biden administration in November for its use by foreign governments to target dissidents, journalists and others.” to attack maliciously”.
NSO started in the mid-2000s with two school friends, Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, and started start-ups in Bnai Zion, an agricultural cooperative outside Tel Aviv.
One of their start-ups, CommuniTake, which offered mobile phone tech support workers the ability to take over their customers’ devices — with permission — caught the attention of a European intelligence agency, Mr Hulio said.
NSO was born and the company eventually developed a way to access phones without user consent – no need to click on a malicious attachment or link. (That the company’s name sounded like the NSA was purely coincidental).
“You start to believe that all your movements are being watched.”
After NSO started selling Pegasus worldwide in 2011, Mexican authorities used it to arrest Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug lord known as El Chapo. And European researchers used it to bust a child abuse ring involving dozens of suspects in more than 40 countries.
But abuses have also come to light in reports from researchers and news organizations, including The Times.
Mexico used the spyware to attack journalists and dissidents. Saudi Arabia used it against women’s rights activists and associates of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was murdered and dismembered in 2018 by Saudi agents.
That year, the CIA bought Pegasus to help Djibouti, a US ally, fight terrorism, despite longstanding concerns about human rights violations there, including the persecution of journalists and the torture of dissidents.
In the UAE, Pegasus was used to hack into the phone of an outspoken government critic, Ahmed Mansoor.
Mr. Mansoor’s email account was hacked, his geolocation was checked, $140,000 was stolen from his bank account, he was fired and strangers beat him on the street.
“You start to believe that every move is being watched,” he said. In 2018, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for posts he posted on Facebook and Twitter.
Through a series of new deals licensed by the Israeli Defense Ministry, Pegasus has been delivered to the far-right leaders of Poland, Hungary, India and other countries.
Netanyahu did not order the shutdown of the Pegasus system, even when the Polish government passed laws that many Jews inside and outside Israel saw as Holocaust denial, or then Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, at a conference attended by Netanyahu himself , falsely listed “Jewish perpetrators” among those responsible for the Holocaust.
The blacklisting of NSO infuriated Israeli officials.
US companies have been trying to build their own tools that can hack into phones with the convenience of NSO’s ‘zero click’ technology.
One of those companies, Boldend, told defense industry giant Raytheon in January 2021 that it was able to hack into WhatsApp, Facebook’s popular messaging service, but then lost the capability after a WhatsApp update, according to a presentation obtained by The times.
The claim was especially noteworthy because, according to one of the slides, Founders Fund is a major Boldend investor — a company run by Peter Thiel, the billionaire who was one of Facebook’s early investors and remains on its board.
NSO’s recent US blacklist could stifle the company by denying it access to the US technology it needs to run its business, including Dell computers and Amazon cloud servers.
The reprimand has infuriated Israeli officials who have denounced the move as an attack not only on a crown jewel of the country’s defense industry, but also on the country itself.
“The people targeting the NSO,” said Yigal Unna, director general of the Israel National Cyber Directorate until Jan. 5, “are actually targeting the blue-and-white flag hanging behind it.”