THE most powerful cyberweapon in the world belonged to the United States – before they decided to ban its import.
Israeli tech company NSO created a version of Pegasus smartphone spyware called Phantom in 2019 that could only be sold to US government agencies, according to a report that was released on Friday.
Here are seven things you need to know about the cyberweapon.
FBI BUYS AND TESTS PEGASUS
The Federal Bureau of Investigation bought and tested the software but the details of the purchase and testing were never made public until this week, according to the New York Times in their eye-opening report.
The report details that FBI employees "bought new smartphones at local stores and set them up with dummy accounts, using SIM cards from other countries," as Pegasus wasn't able to hack into American devices.
As American lawyers debated the advantages and disadvantages of purchasing the software, the FBI renewed the contract for the Pegasus system and allegedly "ran up fees to NSO of approximately $5million."
According to the report, The Drug Enforcement Agency, Secret Service, and US military held discussions with the Israeli spyware company as well.
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COUNTRIES USED IT TO SPY
Pegasus promises to crack encrypted messages on iPhones and Androids.
It's been used to prevent terrorism and fight organized crime, an example of which is the capture of El Chapo, the Mexican drug lord.
The report reads, "since NSO had introduced Pegasus to the global market in 2011, it had helped Mexican authorities capture Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug lord known as El Chapo."
However, the spyware has also been used in abusive ways, according to the report that details the technology's effects on international relations.
"The United States has made a series of calculations in response to these developments — secretly acquiring, testing, and deploying the company’s technology, even as it has denounced the company in public and sought to limit its access to vital American suppliers."
US BANS WEAPON
The US ultimately turned down Pegasus after much deliberation, and subsequently banned the import of the technology.
An FBI spokeswoman told the Times that the bureau analyzes new technologies “not just to explore a potential legal use but also to combat crime and to protect both the American people and our civil liberties."
"That means we routinely identify, evaluate and test technical solutions and services for a variety of reasons, including possible operational and security concerns they might pose in the wrong hands.”
The US publicly rebuked NSO in November and named the technology as a national security risk.
The Commerce Department added NSO to the Entity list, which bans the company's products from entering, leaving, or passing from one organization to another within the country.
AMERICANS' PHONES BREACHED
Americans quickly became aware that there was an Israeli malware that could possibly infect iPhones and Androids.
The technology could be installed onto smartphones by tricking unsuspecting victims into clicking a link.
However, the new version of the spyware could be downloaded onto cellphones without the user having to do anything.
Media reports at the time were saying that a technology leak in July brought the spyware back into the spotlight.
In 2019, the Pegasus software was linked to a WhatsApp attack on US allies, according to the messaging app's chief executive Will Cathcart.
CYBERWEAPONS 'OUT OF CONTROL'
Israeli and American citizens alike have gone deep into conspiracy theories about the cyberweapon.
However, the Biden administration officials dismissed this possibility to The Times, saying that the US's decision to ban the technology had nothing to do with the decades-old alliance between countries, but rather everything to do with reining in a dangerous company.
A former American ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk disagreed with the deep conspiracies as well.
“NSO was providing the means for states to spy on their own people,” he said
“From my point of view it’s straightforward – This issue is not about Israel’s security. It’s about something that got out of control.”
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