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US federal agency used NSO spyware after Biden ban: Report

A US federal agency purchased spyware from NSO Group after the Biden administration placed the Israeli company on a commerce department blacklist
The NSO Group has been at the heart of a global scandal for years (AFP)

A US federal agency purchased spyware from the NSO Group after the Biden administration placed the Israeli company on a commerce department blacklist, according to a report by the New York Times.

According to the NYT report, the unnamed federal agency purchased a geolocation tool that tracks the location of a mobile phone without the phone user’s knowledge or consent. The contract was signed on 8 November 2021, just five days after the Biden administration placed NSO on a blacklist.

The transaction took place through a murky web of front companies. The US federal agency used a company called “Cleopatra Holdings” to seal the deal with Gideon Cyber Systems - a holding company owned by Novalpina Capital, a private equity firm that is the primary owner of NSO.

The NSO technology allows US government officials to type mobile phone numbers into a database and determine their exact location. Two people familiar with the deal cited by the NYT said the technology had been deployed “thousands” of times against targets in Mexico. The 2021 contract allows the US agency to deploy the technology against mobile phones in the US.

NSO has been at the heart of a global scandal for years. The geolocation service, called Landmark, operates on a “pay as you go” system, with clients paying for each search of a target’s mobile phone.

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Saud al-Qahtani, a former advisor to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, used the same technology to track Saudi dissidents around the globe, according to the NYT.

NSO is also known for Pegasus software, which turns a user’s mobile phone into a snooping device by gaining access to its microphone and camera. The technology has been used by governments around the world to target political opponents, journalists, and activists.

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The FBI purchased Pegasus in 2019 using Riva Networks, a New Jersey-based government contractor, to ink the deal. The company is the same one used by the unnamed federal agency to purchase Landmark using the cover name “Cleopatra Holdings,” according to the NYT.

The NYT report comes at a sensitive time for the Biden administration, which last week issued an executive order to clamp down on the US government’s use of commercial spyware, citing the risks the surveillance gear poses to national security and potential abuse by foreign actors.

Even as the Biden administration looks to check the rise of spyware, the NYT report underlines how Washington remains a major consumer of the technology itself. Washington’s Middle Eastern allies are also big buyers and producers.

Israel ranks as the top country of origin for spyware, according to an industry data set maintained by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Former US officials and congressional aids who spoke to Middle East Eye previously said the Biden administration’s executive order will be watched carefully in Israel.

Steven Feldstein, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC told MEE that the Biden administration’s decision to blacklist NSO “essentially helped run [the company] into bankruptcy”.

But with governments’ appetite for spyware unchecked, Feldstein said he expects more operators like NSO to spring up.

“Spyware is a growth market,” he added.

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