Digital Forensics Dispatch

Digital Forensics Blog
by Sensei Enterprises, Inc.

FBI Purchased Cellphone Spyware Linked to Jamal Khashoggi Murder

November 17, 2022

According to recent reports in the New York Times and Engadget, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had purchased licenses for the notorious cellphone spyware, Pegasus, as recently as last year.

Pegasus is a mobile phone spyware program developed by the Israeli firm NSO. The spyware can be remotely installed on many mobile phones, including both Apple and Android devices. It reportedly allows users to access information such as text messages, call logs, saved passwords, and even geolocation data directly from a target device. In recent years it has been linked to many high profile incidents including the compromise of US diplomat devices and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

According to testimony from December by FBI director Chris Wray, the agency purchased software licenses to the program for testing purposes only. It is no surprise the agency would be interested in testing the software, given its reported capabilities; however, according to the Times, FBI interest appears to have been in more than just testing the product. In their article, the Times reports it has seen documents from the FBI detailing plans for potential use of the software and guidelines on how federal prosecutors should disclose the use of the software in court if needed. 

Ultimately, in mid-2021, the documents indicated the agency chose not to use the software for criminal investigations. In a recent legal briefing, the agency highlighted that while they had chosen not to use Pegasus it “does not mean it would not test, evaluate and potentially deploy other similar tools for gaining access to encrypted communications used by criminals.”

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