The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) confirmed yesterday that it had purchased the Pegasus spyware, developed by Israel's military spyware firm the NSO Group in 2019, but denied ever using it.
In a statement to the Guardian, the FBI said it purchased the hacking software in order to "stay abreast of emerging technologies and tradecraft."
The US security agency said it bought a "limited licence" to use Pegasus for "product testing and evaluation only," and said "there was no operational use of the software in support of any investigation."
Last week, the New York Times first reported that the FBI had procured the Israeli company's software. However, the statement to the Guardian represents a direct acknowledgement that it acquired the Pegasus hacking technology.
According to the New York Times report, a team from NSO went to the US to set up the spyware for the FBI, but also noted that the intelligence agency said it opted not to use it.
"Spending millions of dollars to line the pockets of a company that is widely known to serially facilitate widespread human rights abuses, possible criminal acts, and operations that threaten the US's own national security is definitely troubling," said Ron Deibert, director of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, which tracks hacking and surveillance, including NSO Group's activities.
"At the very least, this seems like a terribly counterproductive, irresponsible, and ill-conceived way" to keep abreast of surveillance tech, he added.
Israel's Calcalist newspaper said in an unsourced report last month that police had used Pegasus against targets including anti-government protest leaders, sometimes without the required court warrants.
That added a new domestic angle to global pressure on Israel following allegations that Pegasus has been abused by some foreign client governments to spy on human rights activists, journalists and politicians.
NSO, whose sales are subject to Israeli government approval, says it has no involvement in any way in the system's operation once it is sold to governmental customers.