Lawmakers Signal Inquiries Into US Government’s Use of Foreign Spyware – The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Senior lawmakers said they would investigate the government’s purchase and use of powerful spyware made by two Israeli hacking firms, as Congress passed a measure in recent days to try to rein in the proliferation of the hacking tools.

Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, sent a letter last week to the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration asking for detailed information about the agency’s use of Graphite, a spyware tool produced by the Israeli company Paragon.

“Such use could have potential implications for U.S. national security, as well as run contrary to efforts to deter the broad proliferation of powerful surveillance capabilities to autocratic regimes and others who may misuse them,” Mr. Schiff wrote in the letter.

Graphite, like the better-known Israeli hacking tool Pegasus, can penetrate the mobile phones of its targets and extract messages, videos, photos and other content. The New York Times revealed this month that the D.E.A. was using Graphite in its foreign operations. The agency has said it uses the tool legally and only outside the United States, but has not answered questions about whether American citizens can be targeted with the hacking tool.

Mr. Schiff asked Anne Milgram, the D.E.A. administrator, to respond by Jan. 15 to questions submitted in a classified addendum to the drug agency.

By then, Republicans will have taken power in the House and Mr. Schiff will no longer be chairman of the committee. But the committee’s efforts to curtail the spread of foreign spyware have been bipartisan, so the changeover is unlikely to affect its agenda on this issue.

Countries around the world have embraced commercial spyware for the new powers of surveillance it gives them. The Israeli firm NSO held a near monopoly in the industry for nearly a decade — selling Pegasus to Mexico, Saudi Arabia, India and other nations — but new companies peddling other hacking tools have found success as demand has exploded.

A bill Congress passed this month includes provisions that give the director of national intelligence power to prohibit the intelligence community from purchasing foreign spyware, and requires the director of national intelligence to submit to Congress each year a “watch list” identifying foreign spyware firms that present a risk to American intelligence agencies.

Separately, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is pressing the Federal Bureau of Investigation for information about the bureau’s purchase and testing of NSO’s Pegasus spyware. The Israeli firm’s hacking tools have been used by autocratic and democratic governments to target journalists, dissidents and human rights workers.

The Times reported last month that internal F.B.I. documents showed that the bureau’s criminal division in 2021 drew up guidelines for using Pegasus in criminal investigations — before the F.B.I.’s senior leadership decided against using the spyware in operations.

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