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Dozens of internal FBI documents revealed to the New York Times(Opens in a new window) show that FBI officials came close to deploying the controversial Pegasus hacking tool in its own criminal investigations. 

The Times report that FBI officials “made a push” in late 2020 and the first half of 2021 to utilize the hacking software in its own criminal investigations. It is unclear however how the bureau was planning on using the hacking tool – made by the Israeli NSO Group – or whether it had considered using the spyware against American citizens.

The heavily redacted documents, released to the Times after a Freedom of Information Request, show that agency officials were in the “advanced” stages of planning to brief FBI heads on the spyware and had written up guidelines for federal prosecutors on how the use of Pegasus would need to be disclosed during court cases.

Pegasus has been used by various government actors across the globe to infiltrate a target’s mobile phone, with the infiltrator gaining access to messages, emails, and contacts and is able to remotely turn on a device’s cameras and microphone. It has been slammed by human rights groups(Opens in a new window) for its zero-click hacking ability, whereby the hacked user does not need to click on a link, read a message, or answer a call for their device to be infiltrated. 

It’s been known that the FBI obtained the surveillance tool for some time, but the agency had until now kept to a line that it was only interested in the software for research and development purposes.

In December 2021 during a closed-door hearing with Congress, FBI Director Chris Wray said in response to a question from Senator Ron Wyden on the agency’s use of Pegasus(Opens in a new window) that the agency had only procured a license for the hacking software for R&D. 

He said: “If you mean have we used it in any of our investigations to collect or target somebody, the answer is – as I’m assured – no. The reason why I hedge, and I want to be transparent, that we have acquired some of their tools for research and development. In other words, to be able to figure out how bad guys could use it, for example.” 

In response to the revelations, Sen. Wyden slammed Wray for providing “misleading testimony about the bureau’s acquisition of powerful hacking tools.” 

Speaking to the Times an FBI spokeswoman said, “the director’s testimony was accurate when given and remains true today — there has been no operational use of the NSO product to support any FBI investigation.”

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Despite deciding against using Pegasus in criminal investigations, the FBI indicated in a legal briefing(Opens in a new window) last month that it would be open to using other spyware in the future.

The statement read: “Just because the FBI ultimately decided not to deploy the tool in support of criminal investigations does not mean it would not test, evaluate and eventually deploy other similar tools for gaining access to encrypted communications used by criminals.”

The NSO Group has been blacklisted by the US(Opens in a new window), while The European Union Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) has called for the EU to ban the software. A Dutch MEP last week labeled Pegasus, which has been used against journalists, activists, and government critics across the world, as “a grave threat to democracy(Opens in a new window).” 

Amid swirling controversies, the Israeli firm has cut staff by 15% and raised prices by about 20% to fight off a cash loss running into the tens of millions of dollars this year, Bloomberg reports(Opens in a new window).

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