Ex-top cop: Police don’t even have NSO Pegasus spyware, ‘someone will pay for spin’

Former commissioner Roni Alsheich maintains there is thorough judicial oversight for cyber actions as investigation into claims of illegal police spying continues

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

Former police commissioner Roni Alsheich denied Sunday that the Israel Police has access to NSO Group’s powerful Pegasus cyber-surveillance program, the first direct comment on the spyware by a current or former police official, amid media claims that police used the software to hack the phones of government officials, activists and journalists without judicial approval.

“The Israel Police doesn’t have Pegasus,” he said, speaking on-stage at a conference at Reichman University. “Someone will pay for this spin.”

His statements contradict multiple media reports on police’s alleged use of the hacking tool.

The Pegasus program is capable of giving the user complete control over a target’s device, giving access to all data on the phone as well as allowing the user to activate the phone’s camera or microphone without the target knowing.

The police have not officially commented on the purported use of NSO’s Pegasus software, while confirming they are in possession of cyber-surveillance programs. However, officials have maintained that any use of such software was proper and court-approved.

The claims of police’s widespread use of Pegasus have chiefly come from a series of investigative reports by the Calcalist newspaper.

Illustrative. An Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed the NSO Group intelligence firm, on August 28, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP/File)

Alsheich, under whom Calcalist said police began widely abusing the powerful surveillance tool, said these are capabilities that the police are not allowed to have.

“Police can only do wiretapping or, if they physically have the phone, searches,” he said.

Asked what kind of judicial oversight exists to ensure that police are not exceeding their authority, Alsheich said “the oversight is crazy, and that’s completely justified.”

“That doesn’t mean there can’t be mishaps, but a total breakdown — no,” he said.

According to an unsourced report by Channel 12 news last week, Pegasus was used against 90 targets during Alsheich’s three years in office, between 2015-2018. The report said it was used against another 150 targets while Motti Cohen served as acting police commissioner between 2018-2020.

Channel 12 did not say whether, according to its information, these 240 individuals were all hacked under court orders or not.

Police have insisted that any use of spyware to access phones was done under strict adherence to court orders, denying media reports of widespread abuse of their powers to spy on innocent citizens without court oversight.

After the newspaper Calcalist, in an unsourced report on Monday, named 26 people it said were illicitly spied on by police, an internal police probe, handed to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last Tuesday, claimed only three of them had been targeted, only one successfully, and all with judicial oversight.

An investigation by the state prosecution into the allegations is ongoing.

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