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What we learned about Pegasus, the smartphone cracker

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What we learned about Pegasus, the smartphone cracker

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It is widely regarded as the most powerful spyware in the world, capable of reliably cracking encrypted communications from iPhone and Android smartphones.

The software, Pegasus, made by an Israeli company, NSO Group, was able to track terrorists and drug cartels. It has also been used against human rights activists, journalists and dissidents.

Now, an investigation published Friday by The New York Times Magazine has found that Israel, which controls the export of spyware, just as it controls the export of conventional weapons, has made Pegasus a key part of its security strategy. nation, using it to advance its interests around the world.

The year-long investigation, led 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 national surveillance until the agency finally decides last year not to deploy the tools.

The Times found that Pegasus sales played a vital role in winning the support of Arab nations in Israel’s campaign against Iran and in brokering the Abraham Accords, the 2020 diplomatic accords, signed at a Trump ceremony at the White House, which normalized relations between Israel and some of them. its longtime Arab adversaries.

The United States had also decided to acquire Pegasus, the Times found. The FBI, in a previously unreported deal, purchased the spyware in 2019, despite multiple reports that it had been used against activists and political opponents in other countries. He also spent two years discussing whether to roll out a new product, called Phantom, inside the United States.

Discussions at the Justice Department and the FBI continued until last summer, when the FBI finally decided not to use NSO weapons.

But the Pegasus equipment is still in a building in New Jersey used by the FBI. And the company also gave the agency a demonstration of Phantom, which could hack US phone numbers.

A brochure for potential customers, obtained by The Times, says Phantom allows US law enforcement and spy agencies to “turn your target’s smartphone into an intelligence goldmine.”

The Times’ year-long investigation was based on interviews with government officials, heads of intelligence and law enforcement agencies, cyber experts, business executives and protection activists. of privacy in a dozen countries.

It tells the story of NSO’s rise from a start-up operating out of a converted chicken coop onto an agricultural co-op to being blacklisted by the Biden administration in November due to its use by governments. foreigners to “maliciously target” dissidents, journalists and others.

NSO started with two school friends, Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, who set up start-ups in Bnai Zion, an agricultural cooperative outside Tel Aviv, in the mid-2000s.

One of their start-ups, CommuniTake, which offered mobile phone tech support workers the ability to take control of their customers’ devices – with permission – caught the attention of a European intelligence agency, said said Mr. Hulio.

NSO was born and the company eventually developed a way to access phones without the user’s permission – no need to click on any malicious attachment or link. (That the company name sounded like the NSA was a mere coincidence).

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 break up a child abuse ring with dozens of suspects in more than 40 countries.

But abuses have also come to light in reports by researchers and news outlets, including the Times.

Mexico has used spyware to target journalists and dissidents. Saudi Arabia has used it against women’s rights activists and associates 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, a US ally, fight terrorism, despite longstanding concerns about human rights abuses, including the persecution of journalists and the torture of dissidents. .

In the United Arab Emirates, Pegasus was used to hack into the phone of an outspoken government critic, Ahmed Mansoor.

Mr. Mansoor’s email account was hacked, his geolocation was monitored, $140,000 was stolen from his bank account, he was fired from his job and unknown people beat him in the street.

“You start believing your every move is being watched,” he said. In 2018, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for posts he made on Facebook and Twitter.

Through a series of new deals authorized by Israel’s Defense Ministry, Pegasus was supplied to far-right leaders in Poland, Hungary, India and other countries.

Mr. Netanyahu did not order the shutdown of the Pegasus system, even when the Polish government enacted laws that many Jews inside and outside Israel saw as Holocaust denial, or when Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, at a conference attended by Mr. Netanyahu himself, falsely listed “Jewish perpetrators” among those responsible for the Holocaust.

American companies have tried to create their own tools capable of hacking phones with the ease of NSO’s “zero click” technology.

One such company, Boldend, told defense industry giant Raytheon in January 2021 that it could hack WhatsApp, the popular messaging service owned by Facebook, but then had lost the ability after a WhatsApp update, according to a presentation obtained by The Times.

The claim was particularly notable because, according to one of the slides, a major investor in Boldend is Founders Fund – a company run by Peter Thiel, the billionaire who was an early investor in Facebook and remains on its board. ‘administration.

NSO’s recent U.S. blacklisting could stifle the company by denying it access to U.S. technology it needs to run its operations, including Dell computers and Amazon cloud servers.

The rebuke infuriated Israeli officials who denounced the move as an attack not only on a crown jewel of the country’s defense industry, but on the country itself.

“People pointing their arrows at NSO,” said Yigal Unna, director general of Israel’s National Directorate of Cybersecurity until January 5, “are actually aiming for the blue and white flag hanging behind it.”

What we learned about Pegasus, the smartphone cracker

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