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Head of privacy authority seeks urgent meeting with police

Comptroller to probe spyware use on citizens, as outraged lawmakers demand inquiry

MKs seek parliamentary probe into explosive report police took over civilians’ cellphones without oversight; attorney general said to demand answers from cops

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 Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)
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 Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

Government comptroller Matanyahu Englman said Tuesday he would probe the alleged use of sophisticated spyware on Israeli citizens, including protesters opposed to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following a newspaper report on the surveillance.

In a statement, the comptroller’s office says he has been engaged for several weeks in a review of police’s use of technology in its enforcement operations.

“As part of this review, the alleged use of software, including NSO software, to hack into citizens’ cellphones will be reviewed.”

Hebrew-language business newspaper Calcalist reported Tuesday that in 2020, police used the NSO spyware Pegasus to surveil leaders of protests against Netanyahu, who was then prime minister. It said police in recent years also hacked the phones of two sitting mayors suspected of corruption and numerous other Israeli citizens, all without a court order or a judge’s oversight.

Channel 12 news reported on Tuesday evening that police also used tech tools by a second Israeli cyber company, Cellebrite, to hack into people’s phones. At least one protester active in the movement to oust Netanyahu found Cellebrite spyware on their phone, the report alleged.

The comptroller’s office noted the privacy concerns of using such means, as well as the danger of people’s private data falling into the hands of third parties.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman at a conference in Herzliya, on December 7, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“The State Comptroller’s work emphasizes the protection of the privacy of Israeli citizens and residents,” the statement said. “Technological means are used as evidence in criminal proceedings and raise questions on balancing their benefits versus the harm to the right to privacy and other rights.”

According to Channel 12 and Haaretz, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was also demanding explanations from the police on the allegations in the report. The paper cited unnamed sources in the state prosecution denying knowledge of the use of Pegasus.

Police chief Kobi Shabtai visits at roadblock outside Jerusalem during a COVID-19 lockdown, on January 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The head of Israel’s Privacy Protection Authority, Gilad Samama, demanded an urgent meeting with Police chief Kobi Shabtai to review and probe the matter. The authority said in a statement that the use of the software as alleged would constitute “severe harm to citizens’ privacy.”

In the Knesset, outraged lawmakers called for a parliamentary inquiry.

The police denied some of the allegations, saying they operate according to the law, though they did not deny using the software.

Sophisticated spyware made by the Israeli company has been linked to eavesdropping on human rights activists, journalists and politicians, from Saudi Arabia to Mexico. The United States has barred the group from American technology, saying its products have been used by repressive regimes.

The company says its products are intended to be used against criminals and terrorists, and that it does not control how its clients use the software.

The Calcalist report — which cited no current or formal officials from the government, police or NSO corroborating the claims — referred to eight alleged examples of the police’s secretive signal intelligence unit employing Pegasus to surveil Israeli citizens, including hacking phones of a murder suspect and opponents of the Jerusalem Pride Parade. The report did not name any of the people whose phones were allegedly hacked by the police.

“In all the cases mentioned in the article, and in other instances, use of Pegasus was made at the sole discretion of senior police officers,” the report said. “The significance is that with Pegasus, the police can effectively hack without asking a court, without a search or entry warrant, without oversight, to all cellphones.”

The report sparked an outcry across the political spectrum, briefly uniting everyone from Jewish ultra-nationalists to Arab opposition lawmakers in shared outrage.

Energy Minister Karine Elharrar told Army Radio that such surveillance “was something that a democratic country cannot allow.”

Knesset member Karine Elharrar speaks during a culture event in Kfar Yona, on March 9, 2019. (Flash90)

Opposition lawmaker Yuval Steinitz said that surveillance of citizens by law enforcement without judicial oversight is improper and that if the claims are correct, it should be investigated.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, whose department oversees the police, tweeted that he would verify that police received explicit authorization from a judge to use the spyware.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party called on the Knesset speaker to launch a parliamentary investigation. Merav Ben Ari, a coalition lawmaker who heads the Knesset’s internal security committee, said the panel would hold a hearing into the report’s claims.

MK Mossi Raz of the coalition party Meretz said all of his party’s lawmakers have contacted Barlev, demanding that Israel “immediately halt any use of the Pegasus tool against civilians.”

“An inquiry isn’t completed in a single morning, and when civil rights are on the line, there is a need for transparency and deep public discussion,” Raz added.

MK Merav Ben Ari at a committee meeting in the Knesset, on February 6, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Eldad Yaniv, one of the leaders of the anti-Netanyahu protests, said, “I really hope that Minister Barlev understands his agenda today: Order Shabtai to a hearing immediately — and if the Calcalist report is correct — submit a serious complaint against him to police investigators and suspend him immediately.”

Amir Haskel, a prominent protest leader, said he “wasn’t surprised by the allegations.”

“The use of software to follow protest leaders suits former public security minister Amir Ohana, who did everything to suppress the protests.”

The Israel Internet Association said, “If police use NSO technology to track Israeli civilians without supervision or appropriate order — it’s an earthquake.”

The allegations “should cause worry to every citizen of the State of Israel,” the group said.

Police issued a statement after the report’s publication, saying that “there’s no truth to the claims raised in the article” and that “all police operations in this field are in accordance with the law, in line with court orders and meticulous protocols.”

Amir Ohana, who was public security minister during the 2020 protests, said he had no knowledge of the reported surveillance.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the entrance to Jerusalem, on January 30, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Black Flags protest movement, whose leaders were allegedly surveilled during weekly demonstrations in recent years calling on Netanyahu to resign, called on the police to release the names of the people whose phones were hacked. Spokesman Roee Neuman said the protest leaders only learned of the digital surveillance following the publication of the report.

Pegasus software surreptitiously grants full access to a person’s cellphone, including real-time communications.

Tuesday’s report was the latest blow for the company, which has faced growing scrutiny and criticism for its software’s use by repressive governments.

NSO’s software has repeatedly been blamed for cellphone surveillance of activists, dissidents and journalists. Last month, the internet watchdog Citizen Lab said dozens of journalists and human rights defenders in El Salvador had their cellphones repeatedly hacked with sophisticated spyware over the past year and a half.

In November, Citizen Lab said it had identified Pegasus software on the phones of six Palestinian human rights activists affiliated with groups that Israel has controversially claimed are involved in terrorism.

Citizen Lab has been identifying Pegasus victims since 2015, when abuses of the spyware against journalists and human rights activists were discovered in Mexico and autocratic Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia. Dozens of cases have since been uncovered, including of a dozen US State Department employees in Uganda, British lawyers and a Polish senator who led the opposition’s 2019 parliamentary campaign.

The NSO Group said that it could neither confirm nor deny any specific clients, adding that “the company 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,” the company said.

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