NEW YORK—The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed suit today to enforce a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records concerning U.S. government agencies’ possible use of “spyware,” including Pegasus and similar products developed or provided by NSO Group. Recent news reports have revealed that several federal agencies have communicated or even contracted with NSO Group, a company that the U.S. government has now blacklisted.

“Spyware tools like Pegasus pose a profound threat to free speech and privacy—as well as to human rights more broadly, as the Biden administration recently recognized,” said Carrie DeCell, senior staff attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute. “It’s really disturbing that federal agencies have apparently been exploring the possibility of using this technology here in the United States. The public should know more about what federal agencies have been exploring, and what legal lines the Justice Department has drawn.”

NSO Group, an Israel-based company, develops and sells spyware to governments around the world—including governments that have engaged in serious human rights abuses against journalists and activists, among others. Its signature product, called Pegasus, can reportedly infect smartphones undetected to give the spyware’s operators essentially full control of the device, which can be used to extract contact lists, calendar entries, text messages, emails, search histories, and GPS locations. Moreover, it can enable the smartphone’s microphone to record surrounding sounds, turning the device into a wandering wiretap, and it can use the smartphone’s camera to capture snapshots, enabling real-time visual surveillance. 

According to recent news reports: the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) purchased and tested a version of Pegasus in 2019; the Central Intelligence Agency assisted the government of Djibouti in acquiring Pegasus; employees of the Army, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Secret Service have also communicated with NSO Group or its U.S. counterpart—Westbridge Technologies—about the possible purchase of Pegasus or similar spyware tools; and the Department of Justice has considered whether the use of such tools would violate U.S. law.

The Knight Institute’s lawsuit seeks expedited processing and immediate release of the requested records to help the public better understand the extent of the U.S. government’s consideration or use of spyware. The New York Times also filed a lawsuit today to enforce a FOIA request for communications and contracts between the FBI and NSO Group.

Read today’s complaint here.

Lawyers on the case include DeCell, Jameel Jaffer, and Evan Welber Falcón of the Knight First Amendment Institute.

For more information, contact: Lorraine Kenny, communications director, [email protected]