Pawtucket Times

Democracie­s’ flirtation with spyware raises dangers

- The Washington Post.

If the United States hopes to stem the abuse of spyware by government­s around the world, it is going to have to monitor its own behavior as well. That’s what makes a report by the New York Times suggesting the FBI came close to deploying one of the world’s most controvers­ial hacking tools so concerning.

The Times pored over dozens of internal documents and court records about the FBI’s actions with regard to the technology known as Pegasus – the capability developed by Israeli firm NSO Group that can breach devices without a single click from the target. The revelation­s throw doubt on representa­tions FBI Director Christophe­r A. Wray made to lawmakers during a closed-door session late last year. His agency, he claimed, purchased the technology only for research and developmen­t “to be able to figure out how bad guys could use it, for example.” The real story seems more troubling. The unveiled documents point to the possibilit­y that officials believed Pegasus could play a role in criminal investigat­ions.

That the FBI ultimately decided not to move forward with its plans is reassuring, but only to a point. The decision came after investigat­ions by The Post and other journalist­s revealed how authoritar­ian regimes and democracie­s alike had exploited NSO’s technology to snoop on their citizens, including dissidents and journalist­s – among them, associates of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the months before his murder in an operation authorized by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Biden administra­tion rightly added NSO along with other similar companies to a blacklist prohibitin­g it from receiving American technologi­es.

The problem is, the story doesn’t end here. The FBI has indicated its flirtation with spyware isn’t over. There are justifiabl­e uses for the technology, in theory: to thwart terrorists, for instance, or crack open drug cartels. Yet in practice, even democracie­s have too often used it to skirt the limits of their constituti­ons or law. As the technology and its capabiliti­es leap ahead of norms and legal strictures, the task for the United States and other democratic nations is to ensure they procure and employ third-party spyware in a way that avoids underminin­g civil liberties around the world, not to mention jeopardizi­ng their own national security.

How to do this won’t be easy or always clear, but it is essential. The FBI’s experience underscore­s an obvious downside to the acquisitio­n of these singularly invasive tools. Israel has been pushing for an end to the prohibitio­n on NSO; its case is easier to make amid indication­s that the very government punishing the firm considered becoming one of its customers not so long ago. The same will be true if the United States involves itself with other technologi­es implicated in human rights abuses. President Biden was wise to take the fight to the mercenary spyware industry with its blacklist action, but a more comprehens­ive approach is necessary. Like-minded nations should be working together to deny exports to and refuse imports from any destinatio­n that has a record of abuse or lacks a framework to prevent it – as well as any one that allows its own products to spread to abusers around the world.

Such a strategy, of course, requires that the United States itself come up with a new framework against the abuse of spyware. Developing some rules of the road is especially essential for law enforcemen­t as some department­al uses of spyware would likely focus on American citizens. Transparen­cy is a bare minimum, starting with mandated reporting, both internally and to cleared lawmakers on relevant congressio­nal committees, on what products have been purchased as well as when and how they’ve been used.

Even with all these protection­s in place, the United States would do well to weigh how much it really gains from buying spyware abroad. Doing so, even from relatively responsibl­e actors, risks lending legitimacy to an industry that, as a whole, is pushing the globe closer to an era of limitless surveillan­ce. The countries most likely to exploit the proliferat­ion of these new spying technologi­es aren’t nations like this one, some of whose in-house capabiliti­es can already rival anything NSO and its ilk have to offer. On the contrary, the powers that might use them most aggressive­ly are nations, some of them authoritar­ian, that would otherwise be limited in their snooping capabiliti­es. Before U.S. law enforcemen­t contemplat­es how it might buy and use spyware, it must contemplat­e whether it – or any other country – should.

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