Controversy Unveiled:The FBI’s Involvement with NSO Group’s Geolocation Tool

As reported by The New York Times in April, that the U.S. government had acquired a spying tool from the controversial Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group. However, White House officials claimed to be unaware of the contract and handed the investigation to the FBI.

Now, a new report from The New York Times reveals that the U.S. intelligence agency did indeed purchase the spyware tool from NSO Group. However, there’s more to the story.

In November 2021, the Biden administration blacklisted NSO Group and placed it on the Commerce Department Entity List, prohibiting U.S. firms from doing business with them. The official reason given was to prevent the proliferation of digital tools used for repression.

Surprisingly, just five days after the blacklisting, a private contractor called Riva Networks finalized a deal with NSO Group for a geolocation tool called “Landmark.” Riva Networks, based in New Jersey, used this tool to secretly track the mobile phones of individuals in Mexico without their knowledge or consent.

The U.S. officials were allegedly using Riva Networks’ services to track suspected drug smugglers and fugitives in Mexico. The company exploited vulnerabilities in the country’s cellphone networks to covertly track mobile phones.

According to the FBI’s investigation, the agency was deceived by Riva Networks, who did not disclose their use of the NSO tool. The FBI believed they were using an in-house geolocation tool provided by Riva Networks. When the agency discovered Riva Networks’ actions, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray terminated the contract. However, sources familiar with the matter suggest that the FBI had been using the spyware since 2021 and even into recent times, much longer than initially claimed.

The FBI stated that their mission involves locating fugitives charged in U.S. courts, including those involved in violent crimes and drug trafficking. To achieve this, they contract with companies that can provide technological assistance in locating fugitives hiding abroad. The agency maintains that they have not used foreign commercial spyware in any operational endeavors, and the geolocation tool did not grant them access to actual devices.

One alarming revelation is that the FBI was not aware that Riva Networks had obtained the NSO tool until they read about it in The New York Times in April.

This raises concerns about why the FBI hired this contractor for collecting sensitive information outside the U.S. and highlights the need for better monitoring of the tools used in such operations. The incident has brought attention to the challenges and risks associated with the use of spyware and surveillance tools by government agencies.

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