Between 2020 and 2021, the US agency was on the verge of using the NSO Group’s programme
Early last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reportedly considered using the NSO Group’s infamous Pegasus spyware in criminal investigations. The New York Times reports that agency officials were in the ‘advanced’ stages of development in late 2020 and early 2021 to brief the FBI on the software. Internal documents reveal that the bureau had developed guidelines for federal prosecutors detailing how the FBI’s use of Pegasus could benefit them during court cases.
Based on the papers, it is unclear whether the FBI had considered using spyware against US citizens. Earlier this year, the Times discovered that the agency had tested Phantom, a version of Pegasus that can target phones with US numbers. In July 2021, the FBI decided not to use Pegasus, in the same month that the Washington Post published an investigation alleging that the software had been exploited to compromise the phones of two women close to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was later murdered.
A few months later, the United States placed the NSO Group, the creator of Pegasus, on a particular blacklist of the Department of Commerce, thus preventing American entities from doing business with the company. Despite the decision not to use Pegasus, the FBI has indicated that it remains open to the use of spyware in the future. “Just because the FBI ultimately decided not to use the tool in support of criminal investigations does not mean it would not have tested, evaluated, and potentially deployed other similar tools to gain access to encrypted communications used by criminals,” states a legal memo filed by the FBI last month.
The documents appear to show a different picture of the agency’s interest in Pegasus than the one FBI Director Chris Wray shared with Congress during a closed-door hearing last December. “If you want to say we’ve used it in any of our investigations to harvest or target anyone, the answer is no,” he said in response to a question from Senator Ron Wyden. “I want to be transparent: we have acquired some of their tools for research and development, to be able to understand how the bad guys might use them”.