Report: FBI probing use of Israeli spyware in hacks

Sources tell Reuters the FBI is investigating the role of Israeli NSO Group Technologies in hacks on US residents and companies.

Tags: FBI Hacking
Ben Ariel ,

FBI, Pennsylvania Ave
FBI, Pennsylvania Ave

The FBI is investigating the role of Israeli spyware vendor NSO Group Technologies in possible hacks on American residents and companies as well as suspected intelligence gathering on governments, four people familiar with the inquiry told Reuters on Thursday.

The probe was underway by 2017, when FBI officials were trying to learn whether NSO obtained from American hackers any of the code it needed to infect smartphones, said one person interviewed by the FBI then and again last year.

NSO said it sells its spy software and technical support exclusively to governments and that those tools are to be used in pursuing suspected terrorists and other criminals. The company has long maintained that its products cannot target US phone numbers, though some cybersecurity experts have disputed that.

The FBI conducted more interviews with technology industry experts after Facebook filed a lawsuit in October accusing NSO itself of exploiting a flaw in Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service to hack 1,400 users, two people who spoke with agents or Justice Department officials told Reuters.

That lawsuit was filed two months after the Amnesty International organization claimed that one of its employees had been targeted with NSO’s software on WhatsApp.

In December of 2018, a Saudi dissident filed a lawsuit against NSO for allegedly providing Saudi Arabia with spyware that lead to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October of that year.

NSO said in response to Thursday’s Reuters report that it was not aware of any inquiry.

“We have not been contacted by any U.S. law enforcement at all about any such matters,” NSO said in a statement provided by Mercury Public Affairs strategy firm. NSO did not answer additional questions about its employees conduct but previously said government customers are the ones who do the hacking.

A spokeswoman for the FBI said the agency “adheres to DOJ’s policy of neither confirming nor denying the existence of any investigation, so we wouldn’t be able to provide any further comment.”

NSO is known in the cybersecurity world for its “Pegasus” software other tools that can be delivered in several ways. The software can capture everything on a phone, including the plain text of encrypted messages, and commandeer it to record audio.

A business strategy firm retained on behalf of Inc Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, FTI Consulting, said this month that NSO could have supplied the software it said Saudi Arabia used to hack Bezos’ iPhone.

The FBI is investigating and has met with Bezos, a member of his team told Reuters. A Bezos spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.