FBI investigation reveals that it was unknowingly using NSO-backed spyware

Despite the ban on commercial spyware, an FBI contractor used NSO products to track cellphones in Mexico.


A New York Times investigation uncovered earlier this year that the US government used spyware made by Israeli hacking firm NSO. Now, after an FBI investigation into who was using the tech, the department uncovered a confusing answer: itself, according to the New York Times on Monday.

Since 2021, the Biden administration has taken steps toward parting ways with NSO, given the firm's reputation for shady tools like Pegasus that lets governments discreetly download personal information from hacked phones without the user's knowledge. But even after the president signed an executive order banning commercial spyware in March, an FBI contractor used NSO's geolocation product Landmark to track the locations of targets in Mexico.

The FBI had inked a deal with telecommunications firm Riva Networks to track drug smugglers in Mexico, according to The Times. The spyware let US officials track mobile phones because of existing security gaps in the country's cellphone networks. While the FBI says it was misled by Riva Networks into using the tech, and has since terminated the contract, people with direct knowledge of the situation said the FBI used the spyware as recently this year.

This isn't the FBI's first run in with NSO and its spyware tools. Prior to the executive order banning the products for government use, the agency considered using Pegasus to aid in its criminal investigations. Spyware generally gained a bad reputation for its use to surveil citizens and suppress political dissent, with NSO considered one of the largest in the business.