Two senior US lawmakers have called for an investigation over Washington’s purchase and use of powerful spyware made by two Israeli hacking firms, amid efforts to rein in the spread of hacking tools in the country.
Congressman Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee sent a letter to the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) last week, asking for details about the agency’s use of a spyware tool called Graphite, developed by the Israeli Paragon company, which is able to penetrate mobile devices and extract messages, videos, photos and other files.
"Such use could have potential implications for US 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," Schiff wrote in the letter.
He further called on Anne Milgram, the DEA’s administrator, to respond by January 15 to questions submitted in a classified addendum to the drug agency.
This came after the New York Times revealed earlier this month that the DEA was using Graphite in its foreign operations. The agency responded by saying that it used the tool legally, and only outside the US. However, it has not answered questions about whether American citizens can be targeted with the hacking tool.
Separately, Democratic US Senator Ron Wyden sent a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), to provide information about the bureau's purchase and testing of Pegasus spyware developed by the infamous Israeli cyber firm NSO Group.
Wyden urged the FBI to explain why it decided not to deploy Pegasus, saying that it "remains unclear what triggered the decision by FBI leadership to forgo operational use of the tool".
"The FBI cannot continue to shroud in secrecy the rules that govern its hacking operations against Americans’ phones and computers," he said in the letter.
"The American people have a right to know the scale of the FBI's hacking activities and the rules that govern the use of this controversial surveillance technique."
Back in January, an investigation sponsored by the New York Times revealed that the FBI has secretly bought Israel’s Pegasus spyware, widely regarded as the world’s most potent spyware, in 2019 to use it for domestic surveillance.
The newspaper also reported that NSO has offered the FBI a version of Pegasus that would be able to hack any phone number in the US.
According to the investigation, Washington spent the past two years to explore whether to use NSO’s new spyware, dubbed Phantom, against Americans.
The FBI later confirmed that it had obtained the spyware, but only with a "limited license". NSO has categorically denied that its Pegasus spyware could be used against US mobile phones.
Last year, the US put NSO on its blacklist following confirmation that the firm’s phone-hacking tools, like Pegasus, had been used by foreign governments to “maliciously target” journalists and officials.
The two letters were sent as Congress passed its omnibus spending bill last week, which includes provisions that give the director of national intelligence power to prohibit the intelligence community from purchasing foreign spyware.
The measures also require the director to submit to Congress each year a "watch list" identifying foreign spyware firms that present a risk to US intelligence agencies.