At least three city mayors and members of their families were targeted by Israel Police with spyware made by the controversial NSO Group in an attempt to find indications of criminal activity, the Calcalist website reported Sunday.
Information gleaned by targeting the mayors’ family members with the Pegasus spyware revealed activity that, though apparently not criminal, was used to justify requests for wiretaps on the mayors. That in turn led to their being taken into custody and interrogated, but all the cases were eventually closed, according to the report.
The report came amid public outrage over accusations that police regularly used spyware to break into Israelis’ phones without judicial oversight.
Calcalist claimed that information it received showed that investigators would submit requests — not formally but with a simple phone call — to the police intelligence unit when they had suspicions about a particular mayor. Sometimes the requests were made on the basis of information from an informant, with no evidence, after a large tender for a public works project was published in the mayor’s town — or just a simple hunch.
The website reported that in one case police hacked a mayor’s phone but found nothing of a criminal nature. Pegasus was then installed on the phone of the mayor’s wife instead which showed the woman had been speaking with the wife of a contractor. Those conversations also showed no indication of a criminal offense and were of simple social nature.
When investigators got those results, they requested court approval to wiretap the mayor and carry out a search, claiming the mayor was in contact with the contractor via his wife for the purpose of influencing bidding in tenders. The mayor was later arrested and held for a period of time in jail, but the case was eventually closed due to a lack of evidence.
In another case, the Pegasus spyware was used against a mayor and again no wrongdoing was found. Taking matters further, a member of the mayor’s family was additionally targeted with the technology, which revealed that the person had spoken with a contractor about a particular tender. According to Calcalist, the content of the conversations were “general statements, not necessarily evidence of an offense.”
Again, a request was made for a court-approved wiretap and a search, with investigators claiming there was information showing the mayor was influencing the tender via the member of his family. The resulting investigation led to the arrest of the mayor, who was held in custody for several days, and again, the case was eventually closed.
A third case showed a mayor was hacked and no evidence of wrongdoing was found. Pegasus was then used on a member of his family, a senior figure in a local company, and a conversation was found between that individual and the owners of another company regarding a business deal between the two firms. Though the conversation appeared to be inoffensive, a request was made to eavesdrop on the mayor on suspicion of interfering with a tender. The mayor was arrested and held, and that case was then also closed.
The incidents all happened in 2016, when the chief of police was Roni Alsheich, a former senior official with the Shin Bet security service.
Police told Calcalist in a statement it operates “exclusively according to the law.”
“All actions in the context of wiretapping are carried out only by means of orders lawfully issued by a judge,” police said. The force then urged the website that “as long as you have material that indicates that an offense has been committed, we ask you to transfer it to the authorities as soon as possible.”
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev admitted on Sunday that there may have been some individual incidents of misuse but also suggested that Calcalist, which has spearheaded reporting of the spyware affair, may be inflating the information it has received.
Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, Barlev said that police are looking into the “hints” that have been reported over the past few days by Calcalist. He said that so far, from what police have been able to understand from the Calcalist reports, the “facts are completely different” and that either there were no investigations into the mayors or that any probes were court-approved.
But, he conceded, it is “quite possible” there were a handful of incidents in which investigators acted of their own accord to “cut corners.” He said: “That is against the law and they will face justice.”
Citing the attorney general’s own probe on the matter, Barlev said it was still too earlier to rule out the possibility that in the past “there were some sort of incidents that a police figure veered from regulations.”
Barlev said the priority was now to ensure that no such activities were still are going on at the moment. But he defended the police force having the technology in its toolbox, saying the methods are necessary to combat organized crime — which he noted may include elected officials — which employs advanced systems to try to hide its activities.
The Calcalist business news outlet first reported last week that police have for years been making widespread use of Pegasus spyware against Israeli civilians, including people not suspected of any crimes, without legal oversight. Further reports of misuse have since emerged.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced an investigation into the affair, writing to Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai that “it is difficult to overstate the severity of the alleged harm to basic rights” if the report is true.
Pegasus is considered one of the most powerful cyber-surveillance tools available on the market, giving operators the ability to effectively take full control of a target’s phone, download all data from the device, or activate its camera or microphone without the user knowing.
NSO Group, the company that produces the software, has been involved in numerous scandals in recent years and has faced a torrent of international criticism over allegations it helps governments, including dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, spy on dissidents and rights activists. In November, the US Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO Group, adding it to the list of foreign companies that engage in malicious cyber activities.
NSO would neither confirm nor deny it sold technologies to Israeli police, stressing that it does “not operate the system once sold to its governmental customers and it is not involved in any way in the system’s operation.”