Earlier this year, a report by the New York Times revealed that a special US version of Pegasus smartphone spyware was created by the NSO and purchased by the FBI. Now, two Republican lawmakers are pressing Apple and the Federal Bureau of Investigation about it.
Letters obtained by CNBCdated Thursday and signed by House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jim Jordan and the subcommittee on civil rights Ranking Member Mike Johnson, show the Committee is investigating this matter:
“The Committee is examining the FBI’s acquisition, testing, and use of NSO’s spyware, and potential civil liberty implications of the use of Pegasus or Phantom against US persons,” the letter to Apple says.
Jordan and Johnson are asking Apple CEO Tim Cook to provide details about the company’s ability to detect when iPhones have been targeted by the NSO Group tools. According to the report, the letter requests from Apple provide the number of attacks it’s detected from the tools and when and where they occurred. It also asks Apple for a ‘staff-level briefing’ about the company’s communications with government agencies about the spyware. ”
Apple, the FBI, and the NSO Group didn’t respond to CNBC requests for comment, although an FBI spokesperson told the Times in a statement from earlier this year that it looks at new technologies “not just to explore potential legal use but also to combat crime and to protect both American people and our civil liberties. ”
What’s Pegasus, and how is it used?
Pegasus is a spyware for iPhone and Android made by the NSO Group. The company purchases zero-day vulnerabilities from hackers, and its software is said to be capable of mounting zero-click exploits – where no user interaction is required by the target.
In particular, it’s reported that simply receiving a particular iMessage – without opening it or interacting with it in any way – can allow an iPhone to be compromised, with personal data exposed.
NSO sells Pegasus only to governments, but its customers include countries with extremely poor human rights records – with political opponents and others targeted.
That said, after a great deal of discussion following revelations about the abuse of Pegasus by other countries, the US 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.
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