Pegasus: The Story Behind the World’s Most Powerful Phone Spyware
It is widely recognized as the most powerful spyware in the world, capable of reliably decrypting encrypted communications on iPhones and Android smartphones.
Said software, Pegasus, manufactured by the Israeli company NSO Group, has managed to track terrorists and drug cartels. It has also been used against human rights activists, journalists and dissidents.
now one research published Friday in The New York Times Magazine has found that Israel, which controls the export of spyware in the same way it controls conventional arms exports, has made Pegasus a key element of its national security strategy and uses it to advance its interests around the world.
The year-long investigation by Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti also reports that the FBI purchased and tested NSO software for years with the intention of using it for home surveillance until last year, finally, the agency decided not to use the tools.
The Times found that Pegasus sales played a key role in rallying support from Arab countries for Israel’s campaign against Iran in negotiating the Abraham Accords in 2020, that were signed in a ceremony at the White House of Donald Trump. Diplomatic agreements normalized relations between Israel and some of its former Arab adversaries.
The United States had also tried to acquire Pegasus, the Times found. The FBI, in a previously undisclosed deal, bought the spyware in 2019, despite mixed reports that it had been used against activists and political opponents in other countries. The agency spent two years discussing whether to roll out a newer product, called the Phantom, within the United States.
Discussions at the Justice Department and the FBI continued until last summer, when the FBI finally decided it would not use NSO weapons.
But the Pegasus team is still in a New Jersey building used by the FBI, and the company also offered the agency a demo of Phantom, which could hack into American phone lines.
A catalog aimed at potential customers, obtained by the Times, says that Phantom allows US intelligence and law enforcement agencies to “turn their target’s smartphone into an intelligence gold mine.”
The Times investigation was based on interviews with government officials, intelligence and law enforcement agency leaders, cyber experts, business executives and privacy activists in more than a dozen countries.
It is an account of the rise of NSO, which grew from a start-up operating out of a chicken coop of an agricultural cooperative to enter a blacklist of the government of Joe Biden in November because foreign governments use it to “maliciously target” dissidents, journalists and others.
NSO started with two school friends, Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, who were incubating start-ups at the Bnai Zion agricultural cooperative outside Tel Aviv in the mid-2000s.
One such company, CommuniTake, which offered mobile technology support workers the ability to take control of customers’ devices — with permission — caught the attention of a European intelligence agency, Hulio said.
Thus, NSO was born, and the company eventually developed a way to gain access to phones without the user’s permission and without the need to click on any links or malicious attachments. (It was just a coincidence that the company’s name sounded like NSA, the US National Security Agency.)
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 used it to take down a child abuse ring with dozens of suspects in more than 40 countries.
Mexico used the spy program against journalists and dissidents. Saudi Arabia used it against women’s rights activists and contacts of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents in 2018.
That year, the CIA bought Pegasus to help Djibouti, an American ally, in the fight against terrorism, despite longstanding concerns about human rights abuses in that country, including the persecution of journalists and the torture of opponents. .
In the United Arab Emirates, Pegasus was used to hack the phone of Ahmed Mansoor, an outspoken critic of the regime.
Mansoor’s email account was breached, his geolocation was monitored, $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 think that your every move is being watched,” he said. In 2018, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for posts he had made on Facebook and Twitter.
Through a series of new commercial agreements licensed by the Israeli Defense Ministry, Pegasus has been provided to far-right leaders in Poland, Hungary, India and other countries.
Netanyahu did not order the Pegasus system shut down, even after the Polish government enacted laws that many Jews inside and outside of Israel viewed as Holocaust denialism, nor even when Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, at a conference attended by the Netanyahu himself falsely said that “Jewish perpetrators” were among those responsible for the Holocaust.
There are US companies that have been trying to create their own tools to hack phones with the ease of NSO’s “no-click” technology.
In January 2021, one such company, Boldend, told defense giant Raytheon that it could hack WhatsApp, the popular Facebook-owned messaging service, but after an update WhatsApp lost that ability, according to a filing. accessed by the Times.
That was especially noteworthy because, according to one of the slides, one of Boldend’s main investors is Founders Fund, a company run by Peter Thiel, the billionaire who was an early investor in Facebook and remains on its board.
Blacklisting NSO in the United States could hurt the company by removing access to American technology it needs for its operations, including Dell computers and Amazon cloud servers.
The rebuke angered Israeli officials, who denounced the move as an attack not only on the crown jewel of the country’s defense industry, but on Israel itself.
“The people who are pointing their spears at NSO,” said Yigal Unna, who until January 5 was director general of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate, “are actually pointing at the blue and white flag hanging behind it.”