The Federal Bureau of Investigation spent two years considering whether it should procure a clandestine commercial spyware tool that could reportedly hack any phone within the United States, according to an investigation by New York Times Magazine.
That spyware system, dubbed “Phantom,” was offered secretly to U.S. government agencies by the NSO Group, Israel’s notorious cyberweapons distributor, over a multi-year period between 2019 and last summer. According to the Times, the potential business relationship was negotiated even as NSO increasingly became the subject of controversy, with critics accusing it of aiding human rights abuses in nations around the world.
The American government was reportedly interested in Phantom because NSO’s primary spyware, Pegasus, does not work on U.S. telephone numbers and therefore couldn’t be wielded in law enforcement investigations. The paper reports:
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.
Also interested in the company’s services were numerous other federal agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. Secret Service, and the U.S. military’s Africa Command, the newspaper reports. The FBI also purchased Pegasus from the NSO Group, the Times reports.
The bureau reportedly pursued negotiations with the company for at least two years. During that period, FBI and Justice Department lawyers continually sought to clarify whether deploying the product would violate domestic wiretapping laws. The agency only backed out last summer—around the time that a series of journalistic exposés caused global amounts of trouble for NSO by exposing the scale and scope of its malware’s penetration. Since that time, things have only gotten worse for the Israeli company, as the U.S. turned its back on any partnerships—even going so far as to