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Says 'difficult to overstate severity' of claims, if true

Attorney general opens investigation into police use of NSO spyware against Israelis

Mandelblit says that, if true, ‘it is difficult to overstate severity of alleged harm to basic rights’; he also says materials provided by police so far do not indicate wrongdoing

Police chief Kobi Shabtai at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on September 13, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Police chief Kobi Shabtai at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on September 13, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit told the chief of police Thursday that he will open an investigation into claims police used spyware made by the controversial NSO Group to break into Israelis’ phones.

Mandelblit informed Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai of the investigation, to be led by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari.

Mandelblit asked Shabtai to hand over all warrants for tapping phones from 2020-2021 for the investigation.

The attorney general said in his missive to police that “it is difficult to overstate the severity of the alleged harm to basic rights” if the report is true.

He said that while the claims “paint a highly concerning picture, [the report] does not include sufficiently concrete information, which makes it difficult to identify the incidents in question.”

He noted that a review of the materials supplied by police to justice officials did not raise concerns of any misuse of technology. However, he stressed that cops had not provided full details on the mechanisms by which they handle the technology.

“Insofar as wrongful conduct is found, it certainly could constitute a criminal offense.”

The Calcalist business news outlet first reported on Tuesday that police have for years been making widespread use of NSO’s Pegasus spyware against Israeli civilians, including people not suspected of any crimes, exploiting a legal loophole and keeping the surveillance under tight secrecy, without oversight by a court or a judge.

The explosive report sparked an outcry from lawmakers, activists and privacy experts.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who oversees the police, welcomed the investigation as necessary “to make sure there are no bad apples in the system.” He earlier claimed that there was “no practice of wire-tapping or hacking devices by police without a judge’s approval.”

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 has come under fire for selling Pegasus to authoritarian countries that used the technology to spy on regime critics. The technology was also used to gain unfettered access to senior global public officials’ devices.

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”.

“NSO sells its products under license and regulation to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent terror and crime under court orders and the local laws of their countries,” it said in a statement sent to AFP.

The Calcalist report said police used the spyware against the anti-Netanyahu Black Flag protest movement, two mayors, activists campaigning against LGBT pride parades, an associate of a senior politician and employees in governmental firms.

Police have said the specific allegations were “baseless,” but didn’t deny using the software in some cases. They argue the activity was legal and rested entirely on court orders and “meticulous work protocols.”

They have also acknowledged using tools by several companies for phone tapping, without giving specifics.

Calcalist said Thursday that police targeted a social activist with the spyware, despite the fact that he wasn’t suspected of any crime, and saved potentially embarrassing information about his sex life to use as “leverage” in potential future investigations.

A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, on August 24, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

Thursday’s follow-up report, which did not cite sources, asserted that contrary to police claims, in multiple cases information was extracted using Pegasus during intelligence-gathering — before the initiation of a covert investigation, which is the first stage when police can ask a court for a warrant to tap a target’s phone.

In a statement Thursday, police chief Shabtai called on Calcalist to provide additional details on the alleged cases and stressed that all attempts thus far to probe the matter had not yielded any evidence of illegal police action.

Shabtai said he had ordered more in-depth inquiries in coordination with the attorney general, including into actions taken before he became police chief a year ago. He said that any “isolated incident” in which the rules were violated would be addressed by “fully transparent” actions to fix the matter.

Appearing to acknowledge police use of Pegasus or similar tracking spyware — which wasn’t publicly known before Calcalist’s reports — Shabtai said the allegations of illegal police action should not be used to “delegitimize the very use of these advanced tools,” which he argued would render police unable to tackle serious crime and would “weaken the law enforcement system.”

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, an expert at the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank, said the reported allegations had exposed shortcomings in existing legislation meant to protect the privacy of civilians. She maintained that “you can’t really ask for a court order authorizing Pegasus” because Israeli law does not currently permit such invasive surveillance of its citizens.

“It is now clear that the current Protection of Privacy Law is not equipped to cope with today’s reality,” she said.

Guy Nir, a former head of the police intelligence branch, said he had warned top police officials eight years ago about the problematic nature of the use of Pegasus against civilians, in comments published by Channel 13 Thursday.

“I said… This isn’t the Shin Bet, this isn’t the IDF, not the Mossad. These are civilians, bro, they are not enemies… They’ve gone off the rails,” he said.

According to Nir, after he spoke out, the police signals intelligence unit, which the NSO spyware would have fallen under, was moved out of his purview. Attempts to alert the state comptroller and attorney general, and even a veiled warning during public Knesset testimony in 2018, fell on deaf ears.

“I warned everybody, they all ignored it,” he said. “What did they do? They came after me.”

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