Internal Documents Show How Close the FBI Came to Deploying Spyware

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During a closed-door session with lawmakers, FBI Director Christopher Wray was asked whether the bureau had ever purchased and used Pegasus, the hacking tool that penetrates mobile phones and extracts their contents. Director Wray acknowledged that the FBI had bought a license for Pegasus, but only for research and development. “To be able to figure out how bad guys could use it, for example,” he told Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). But dozens of internal FBI documents and court records tell a different story. The documents show that FBI officials made a push in late 2020 and the first half of 2021 to deploy the hacking tools — made by the Israeli spyware firm NSO — in its own criminal investigations. The officials developed advanced plans to brief the bureau’s leadership, and drew up guidelines for federal prosecutors about how the FBI’s use of hacking tools would need to be disclosed during criminal proceedings. The eventually decided not to deploy Pegasus in criminal investigations in July 2021, amid a flurry of stories about how the hacking tool had been abused by governments across the globe. But the documents offer a glimpse at how the US government — over two presidential administrations — wrestled with the promise and peril of a powerful cyberweapon.

Internal Documents Show How Close the F.B.I. Came to Deploying Spyware