It is considered by many to be the most powerful spyware in the world, capable of reliably cracking encrypted communications of iPhones and Android smartphones.
The software, Pegasus, made by an Israeli company, NSO Group, can track terrorists and drug cartels. It has also been used against human rights activists, journalists and dissidents.
Now, an investigation published Friday by the New York Times Magazine discovered that Israel, which controls spyware exports, like conventional arms exports, has made Pegasus a key component of its national security strategy, use this software to promote its interests around the world.
The yearlong investigation by Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti also reported that the FBI had been purchasing and testing NSO software for years with plans to use it for domestic surveillance until the agency decided did not deploy this tool last year.
The Times found that the sale of Pegasus played a key role in securing Arab support for Israel’s campaign against Iran and negotiating the Abrahamic Agreement, the 2020 diplomatic accord. signed at a Trump ceremony at the White House, that normalized relations between Israel and some of its longtime Arab rivals.
The US has been looking for cyberweapons for domestic use.
The Times reported that the US also acquired Pegasus. The FBI, in a previously unreported deal, purchased the spyware in 2019, despite numerous reports that it was used against activists and political opponents in the United States. Other countries. They also spent two years discussing whether to roll out a newer product, called Phantom, inside the US.
Discussions at the Justice Department and the FBI continued until last summer, when the FBI finally decided not to use NSO weapons.
But Pegasus’ device remained in a New Jersey building used by the FBI, and the company also showed the agency the Phantom that can hack Americans’ phone numbers.
The Times obtained a promotional document intended for potential customers that says Phantom allows US law enforcement and spy agencies to “turn a target’s smartphone into an intelligence goldmine”.
The Times’ year-long investigation was based on interviews with government officials, leaders of intelligence and law enforcement agencies, cyber experts, business executives and activists. privacy action in dozens of countries.
It tells the story of NSO’s rise from a chicken coop start-up converted from an agricultural cooperative into a chicken coop. Biden administration blacklist in November because it was used by foreign governments to “maliciously target” dissidents, journalists and others.
NSO started with two schoolmates, Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, in Bnai Zion, an agricultural cooperative outside Tel Aviv, in the mid-2000s.
One of their startups, CommuniTake, which offers mobile-enabled tech employees the ability to control a customer’s device – with permission – has attracted attention, Mr. Hulio said. of the European intelligence agency.
NSO was born and the company eventually developed a way to access the phone without the user’s permission – without clicking on malicious attachments or links. (The company name that sounds like NSA is just a coincidence.)
‘You start to believe that your every move is being watched.’
After NSO began selling Pegasus globally in 2011, Mexican authorities used it to capture Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug lord known as El Chapo. And European investigators have used it to break a siege of child abuse with dozens of suspects in more than 40 countries.
Mexico has used this spyware to target journalists and dissidents. Saudi Arabia used it against women’s rights activists and associates of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was killed and mutilated by Saudi agents in 2018.
That year, the CIA bought Pegasus to help Djibouti, an American ally, fight terrorism, despite long-standing concerns about human rights abuses there, including the repression of journalists and interrogation. tons of dissidents.
In the UAE, Pegasus was used to hack the phone of an outspoken critic of the government, Ahmed Mansoor.
Mr. Mansoor’s email account was compromised, his geolocation was tracked, $140,000 was stolen from his bank account, he was fired from his job and strangers beat him up on the street.
“You start to believe that your every move is being watched,” he says. In 2018, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the posts he posted on Facebook and Twitter.
Through a series of new deals licensed by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, Pegasus has been made available to the far-right leaders of Poland, Hungary, India and other countries.
Mr. Netanyahu did not order the Pegasus system to be scrapped, even when the Polish government enacted a law that many Jews inside and outside Israel see as denial of the Holocaust, or when Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, at a conference led by his government Mr. Netanyahu attended. , erroneously listed “Jewish perpetrators” among those responsible for the Holocaust.
The blacklisting of NSO has angered Israeli officials.
American companies have been trying to build their own tools that can hack phones easily using NSO’s “zero click” technology.
One of those companies, Boldend, told Raytheon, the defense industry giant, in January 2021, that it was able to hack WhatsApp, the popular messaging service owned by Facebook, but then lost it. possibility after updating WhatsApp, according to a presentation obtained by The Times.
This statement is particularly notable because, according to one of the slides, a major Boldend investor is Founders Fund — a company led by billionaire Peter Thiel as one of its early investors. Facebook operates and remains on the board of directors.
The recent US blacklisting of NSO could strangle the company by denying access to the US technology it needs to run its operations, including Dell computers and cloud servers. by Amazon.
The rebuke angered Israeli officials, who denounced the move as an attack not only on a crown jewel of the country’s defense industry but also on the country itself.
“Everyone aiming their arrows against NSO until January 5,” said Yigal Unna, director general of Israel’s National Cyber Bureau, is actually aiming for the blue and white flag hanging behind it. ”
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/28/world/middleeast/israel-pegasus-spyware.html What We Learned About Pegasus, Smartphone Cracker