A special US version of Pegasus smartphone spyware was created by NSO, and purchased by the FBI, a new report reveals today. The Drug Enforcement Agency, Secret Service, and the US military also held discussions with the Israeli spyware company.

Israel had always insisted that NSO make Pegasus incapable of being used on phones registered to US numbers in order to avoid angering a powerful ally, but an exception was granted…

That exception allowed a special version of Pegasus called Phantom to target US phones – on the condition that it could be sold only to US government agencies.

The New York Times has an eye-opening report, which says that the FBI got as far as buying and testing Pegasus, but it was eventually decided that it would not be used.

The details of the F.B.I.’s purchase and testing of Pegasus have never before been made public […]

F.B.I. employees bought new smartphones at local stores and set them up with dummy accounts using SIM cards from other countries […]

What they could see, minutes later, was every piece of data stored on the phone as it unspooled onto the large monitors of the Pegasus computers: every email, every photo, every text thread, every personal contact. They could also see the phone’s location and even take control of its camera and microphone. F.B.I. agents using Pegasus could, in theory, almost instantly transform phones around the world into powerful surveillance tools — everywhere except in the United States […]

NSO had recently offered the F.B.I. a workaround. During a presentation to officials in Washington, the company demonstrated a new system, called Phantom, that could hack any number in the United States that the F.B.I. decided to target. Israel had granted a special license to NSO, one that permitted its Phantom system to attack U.S. numbers. The license allowed for only one type of client: U.S. government agencies. A slick brochure put together for potential customers by NSO’s U.S. subsidiary, obtained by The Times, says that Phantom allows American law enforcement and spy agencies to get intelligence “by extracting and monitoring crucial data from mobile devices.” It is an “independent solution” that requires no cooperation from AT&T, Verizon, Apple or Google. The system, it says, will “turn your target’s smartphone into an intelligence gold mine.”

After a great deal of discussion following revelations about the abuse of Pegasus by other countries, the US eventually decided against using it – and subsequently banned its import. However, it does mean that a version exists which can target US phones, and we only have NSO’s word that this version has never been sold to anyone else.

The lengthy paywalled report makes for pretty dramatic reading. It follows a report that Israel Police also used Pegasus against their own citizens, without warrants.

Apple has been doing its best to put NSO out of business.

Photo: Simerpreet Singh/Unsplash

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Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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