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The Battle for the World's Most Powerful Cyberweapon


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A yearlong Times investigation has shown how Israel’s ability to approve or deny access to NSO’s cyberweapons has become entangled with its diplomacy.

Credit: Cristiana Couceiro

In June 2019, three Israeli computer engineers arrived at a New Jersey building used by the F.B.I. They unpacked dozens of computer servers, arranging them on tall racks in an isolated room. As they set up the equipment, the engineers made a series of calls to their bosses in Herzliya, a Tel Aviv suburb, at the headquarters for NSO Group, the world's most notorious maker of spyware. Then, with their equipment in place, they began testing.

The F.B.I. had bought a version of Pegasus, NSO's premier spying tool. For nearly a decade, the Israeli firm had been selling its surveillance software on a subscription basis to law-enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world, promising that it could do what no one else — not a private company, not even a state intelligence service — could do: consistently and reliably crack the encrypted communications of any iPhone or Android smartphone.

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. European investigators have quietly used Pegasus to thwart terrorist plots, fight organized crime and, in one case, take down a global child-abuse ring, identifying dozens of suspects in more than 40 countries. In a broader sense, NSO's products seemed to solve one of the biggest problems facing law-enforcement and intelligence agencies in the 21st century: that criminals and terrorists had better technology for encrypting their communications than investigators had to decrypt them. The criminal world had gone dark even as it was increasingly going global.

From The New York Times
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