US government’s purchase, use of Israeli spyware to be investigated
Representative Adam Schiff is asking for detailed information about the Drug Enforcement Administration's use of Graphite, a spyware tool produced by the Israeli company Paragon.
Israeli-led spyware industry has been embroiled in a seemingly never-ending spate of extremely prominent controversies. Revelations that it sells its spyware to authoritarian regimes, that its products have been used to spy on journalists, activists, politicians, and even potentially world leaders, and accusations that it played a role in murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi's death have put it at the center of international criticism.
In a recent development, US senior senators said they will look into the government's purchase and use of strong spyware developed by two Israeli hacking firms, as Congress passed legislation in recent days aimed at limiting the spread of hacking tools, NYT reported.
Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, wrote to the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration last week, requesting extensive information about the agency's use of Graphite, yet another Israeli spyware tool developed by Paragon.
“Such use could have potential implications for U.S. national security, as well as run contrary to efforts to deter the broad proliferation of powerful surveillance capabilities to autocratic regimes and others who may misuse them,” Mr. Schiff wrote in the letter as quoted by NYT.
In further detail, Graphite, like the more well-known Israeli hacking tool Pegasus, can infiltrate targets' mobile phones and extract texts, videos, photographs, and other data, the report noted.
“Israel’s” Predator and Pegasus spyware are very similar to each other, with the latter made by the competing and more famous cyber firm NSO Group. Like Pegasus, Predator allows the operator to access the entire contents of the target’s phone, as well as secretly activate its camera and phone and recording.
A new scandal
The D.E.A. was utilizing Graphite in its foreign activities, according to the New York Times. The CIA claimed that it uses the technique legally and solely outside of the United States but has not addressed whether American citizens can be targeted using the hacking tool.
The same report eviscerated that a bill passed by Congress this month included provisions that give the director of national intelligence the authority to prohibit the intelligence community from purchasing foreign spyware, as well as requiring the director of national intelligence to submit to Congress each year a "watch list" of foreign spyware firms that pose a threat to American intelligence agencies, in reference to Israeli spyware companies.
According to internal FBI documents obtained by The New York Times last month, the bureau's criminal division developed rules for using Pegasus in criminal investigations in 2021 — before the FBI's senior leadership decided against deploying the spyware in operations, as per their claims.
Do Americans know?
Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has lately asked the FBI's director, Christopher Wray, in a letter last week for details on why the bureau chose not to deploy Pegasus, and whether the bureau's lawyers made a conclusion that would bar the FBI from deploying Pegasus or comparable hacking tools.
“The American people have a right to know the scale of the F.B.I.’s hacking activities and the rules that govern the use of this controversial surveillance technique,” Mr. Wyden wrote as cited by NYT.
According to a government legal brief in connection with a Times Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the FBI, "just because the F.B.I. ultimately decided not to deploy the tool in support of criminal investigations does not mean it would not test, evaluate, and potentially deploy other similar tools for gaining access to encrypted communications used by criminals."
It is worth noting that the Biden administration placed NSO and another Israeli hacker firm on a Commerce Department blacklist last year, banning US corporations from doing business with the two firms.
To add salt to injury, Israeli officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive decision-making, said as quoted by NYT that the Israeli security ministry appears to be considering loosening restrictions on companies in order to keep the industry from imploding despite global harm.
Here’s the big picture: Amnesty International, in partnership with tens of journalists and experts, revealed how the Israeli spyware firms most notably Pegasus enabled “human rights violations around the world on a massive scale.”
Despite all this, the world remains silent.
Read more: Another Israeli tool to spy on Palestinians?