Deputy AG’s probe finds ‘no indication’ police illegally hacked citizens’ phones

Justice Ministry says NSO cooperated with investigation into claims that its Pegasus spyware was used against dozens of civilians; police minister hails ‘resounding acquittal’

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

An Illustration of a man holding his phone with an NSO Group logo with a computer screen in the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An Illustration of a man holding his phone with an NSO Group logo with a computer screen in the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A probe into shocking allegations that Israel Police illegally used spyware on the phones of citizens found “no indication” that any such hacking took place.

A Justice Ministry investigation into the claims, headed by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari, was established in the wake of a bombshell report in the Calcalist news outlet last month that police were using the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware without any judicial oversight. Earlier this month, Calcalist reported, without providing evidence, that dozens of high-profile figures — including former ministry directors, prominent business figures and family members and associates of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — were spied on by police.

But interim findings from Marari’s probe — which also included two former Shin Bet officials — found no evidence to support Calcalist’s claims. According to details of the investigation, published on Monday, there is “no indication that the Israel Police used Pegasus without a court order to infect the phone of any of the list of people published in the media.”

Furthermore, a Justice Ministry statement noted that the probe did not uncover any unsuccessful attempts by the police to use Pegasus without judicial oversight, and that it also did not discover any police usage of other similar spyware against the individuals named.

Marari noted that police informed the Justice Ministry that three individuals were subject to a court order allowing such phone hacking, but only two of them had been targeted by the spyware and only one of them was successfully hacked.

The Justice Ministry statement on the investigation said that its probe would continue, and will widen to include people not included on the original Calcalist list.

Former police commissioner Roni Alsheich speaking at a conference at Reichman University, on February 13, 2022. (Adi Cohen Tzedek)

In response to the investigation, a statement from Calcalist said that the findings “require serious consideration and reexamination of the findings and allegations we published.” Such an investigation, the newspaper said, is underway, and “when we finish it, we will not hesitate to correct as much as necessary.”

While former Israel Police commissioner Roni Alsheich denied last week that police have access to the Pegasus spyware, the investigation by Marari made it clear that police do indeed hold a license to use Pegasus, as well as an additional, unnamed spyware tool.

In initial comments following the release of the investigation, Alsheich said he had read the report “and I’m not surprised.”

Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari (Courtesy)

The investigators said that they collated a list of potential phone numbers of individuals who were allegedly hacked, and that NSO Group officials cooperated with police to assist in the investigation. Marari noted that her team conducted “a technological investigation only,” and did not look into any information gathered nor investigate any of the individuals affected.

The investigation also noted that it carried out a “direct” probe of the phone numbers associated with three then-ministry directors named in the Calcalist report: Shai Babad, Emi Palmor and Keren Terner. According to the investigation, none of them were found to have been targeted.

The statement did not name any of the individuals who police said were targeted by the Pegasus spyware with court approval, but prosecutors in Netanyahu’s corruption trial said last week that former Communications Ministry director turned state’s witness Shlomo Filber was spied on by police using Pegasus, and that police also attempted unsuccessfully to spy on Iris Elovitch, a defendant in the case.

Hearings in Netanyahu’s trial have been suspended for the past week while the court awaited the prosecution’s response to the allegations. This week’s hearings were canceled because one of the judges contracted COVID-19.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev attends a ceremony at the Israel Police National Headquarters in Jerusalem, on September 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev said that Marari’s report is a “resounding acquittal for the Israel Police and for those in uniform.” Barlev added that there are many people who “need to bow their heads and apologize” to those within the police “whose names have been smeared in the mud on every stage in recent weeks.”

The original Calcalist report claimed that more than 30 people had been illegally hacked by police, including Avner Netanyahu, the son of the former prime minister; prominent businessman Rami Levy; Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of Walla; Netanya Mayor Miriam Feirberg; and a series of activists.

Speaking Monday evening, new Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara said that law enforcement must ensure that technological measures “be used within the bounds of the law, and we must know how to investigate ourselves without compromise.” Baharav-Miara said that the interim findings of the Marari probe “speak for themselves.”

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