Reports that Israel Police has been using the highly controversial Pegasus spyware system to hack into phones belonging to regular Israeli citizens have caused outrage after being revealed on Tuesday, even though Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev categorically denied that police intruded into devices without a judge’s approval.
According to an expose published by the Calcalist online magazine, police have been using the spyware for years without any oversight whatsoever; worse still, the information obtained is not necessarily related to ongoing investigations but is often harvested in order to have it at hand for potential future use.
Among the phones broken into were devices belonging to mayors as well as leaders of the “Black Flag” protests against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The spyware used by the police allowed them to activate the camera and microphone on cellular devices without the user’s awareness, as well as listen to all calls and read all messages. Calcalist alleges that police failed to seek court warrants or judicial supervision before infiltrating devices, and that there was similarly no oversight on the way in which the information obtained was used or where it was transferred to.
A recent example of the use to which the spyware has been put involved the police’s SIGINT special-ops cyber unit infiltrating the cellular device of a certain mayor who was suspected of bribery. Evidence of criminal activity was indeed detected; when the information was presented, however, police referred to it as “intelligence.” Only later was a search warrant obtained.
Other cases involved “phishing,” where no concrete suspicions of criminal activity existed – one such case concerned the hacking of the phone belonging to a “senior politician.” Another similar case saw the phone of a serving mayor hacked into; the data collected has not been used – yet.
What Calcalist describes as “severe abuse of the privacy of citizens” has also occurred on occasion, such as following the murder of Shira Banki at a “pride” parade in Jerusalem in 2015. Instead of conducting an investigation to identify future threats, police planted Pegasus into the cellular devices of several activists who were known for their opposition to such parades and suspected of being capable of taking violent action. Here again, no legal proceedings resulted from this surveillance.
Israel Police has allegedly been using Pegasus since December, 2015, when Ronni Alsheikh became General Commissioner, and has cost the force tens of millions of shekels in purchase, maintenance, and ongoing usage. Just last year, Pegasus’ parent company NSO denied that the spyware was used against Israeli citizens – in separate interviews, CEO Shalev Hulio and President Tami Mazel claimed that NSO had “chosen not to operate against Israeli and American numbers.”
Responding to Tuesday’s allegations, NSO said in a statement that the company “does not comment on existing or potential clients.” They added that employees were not exposed to any of the information obtained, and stressed that their products were sold “under license and supervision to be used by national security and law enforcement agencies to prevent crime and terror in a legal manner and according to court orders and the local law of each country.”
Israel Police, in their response, flatly denied Calcalist’s claims, calling them “untrue.”
“Israel Police acts according to the authority granted to it by law and when necessary according to court orders and within the rules and regulations set by the responsible bodies. The police’s activity in this sector is under constant supervision and inspection of the Attorney-General of Israel and additional external legal entities. Naturally, the police don't intend to comment on the tools it uses. Nevertheless, we will continue to act in a determined manner with all the means at our disposal, in the physical and online spaces, to fight crime in general, and organized crime in particular, to protect the safety and property of the public.”