The New York Times broke the story that a front company in New Jersey signed a secret contract with the U.S. government in November 2021 to help it gain access to the powerful surveillance tools of Israel’s NSO Group.
PPSA previously reported that the FBI had acquired NSO’s signature technology, Pegasus, which can infiltrate a smartphone, strip all its data, and transform it into a 24/7 surveillance device. Mark Mazzetti and Ronen Bergman of The Times now report that the FBI in recent years had performed tests on defenses against Pegasus and “to test Pegasus for possible deployment in the bureau’s own operations inside the United States.” An FBI spokesperson told these journalists the FBI’s version of the software is now inactive.
The secret contract also grants the U.S. government access to NSO’s powerful geolocation tool called Landmark. Mazzetti and Ronen report that such NSO technology has been used thousands of time against targets in Mexico – and that Mexico is named as a venue for the use of NSO technology. Two sources told the journalists that the “contract also allows for Landmark to be used against mobile numbers in the United States, although there is no evidence that has happened.”
This story is catching the Biden Administration flat-footed, which had declared this technology a national security threat while placing NSO on a Commerce Department blacklist. In light of these new revelations, Members of Congress should ask the Directors of National Intelligence, the CIA, FBI, and DEA:
This breaking story will likely force the Biden White House to promulgate new rules limiting the use of NSO technology by federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. As it does, Congress should be involved every step of the way.
This technology is frightening because NSO tools can be installed remotely on smartphones with the most updated security software, and without the user succumbing to phishing or any other obvious form of attack. The need for a detailed policy limiting the use of these tools is urgent. NSO technology is to ordinary surveillance what nuclear weapons are to conventional weapons. Because nuclear weapons are hard to make, Washington, D.C. had time to plan and enact a global non-proliferation regime that delayed their proliferation. In the case of Pegasus and Landmark, however, this technology easily proliferated in the wild before Washington was even fully aware of its existence.
Pegasus has been used by drug cartels to track down and murder journalists. It has been used by an African government to listen in on conversations between the daughter of a kidnapped man and the U.S. State Department. It was famously used to plan the murder of Adnan Khashoggi. Does anyone doubt that Russian and Chinese intelligence have secured their own copies? Now Washington is both racing to catch up with foreign adversaries and limit the use of this technology at the same time.
NSO, through its amoral proliferation of dangerous technology, has made the world a riskier place. As federal agencies seek to get their hands on this technology, Congress should paint a bright red line – DO NOT USE DOMESTICALLY, EVER.