US federal agency used NSO spyware after Biden ban: Report

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The US federal agency bought spy items from the NSO group after the Biden administration blacklisted the Israeli company from the commerce department, according to a New York Times report.

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

The transaction happened 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 main owner of NSO.

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

NSO has been at the center 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 on a target’s mobile phone.

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Saud al-Qahtani, a former adviser to Saudi 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 its Pegasus software, which turns a user’s mobile phone into a snooping device by accessing its microphone and camera. Governments around the world are using the technology to target political opponents, journalists, and activists.

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The FBI bought Pegasus in 2019 using Riva Networks, a government contractor based in New Jersey, to seal the deal. The company is the same one used by the unnamed federal agency to buy 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 ban the US government’s use of commercial spyware, citing risks the surveillance tool poses to national security and -possible use by foreign actors.

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

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

Former US officials and congressional aides who previously spoke to Middle East Eye 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 “basically helped run [the company] into bankruptcy”.

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

“Spyware is a growing market,” he said.

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