Government to probe police use of spyware, with prosecution critic in charge – report

Channel 12 says commission of inquiry to be formed within a month, headed by retired judge Moshe Drori; police source pans move, saying allegations of abuse already disproved

Judge Moshe Drori attends a ceremony in Tel Aviv, June 12, 2019. (Flash90)
Judge Moshe Drori attends a ceremony in Tel Aviv, June 12, 2019. (Flash90)

The government intends to form an official commission of inquiry to probe alleged illicit use of spyware by police against citizens, a report said Friday.

According to the unsourced story by Channel 12 news, the commission will be formed within the next month and will be headed by retired judge Moshe Drori, a former vice president of the Jerusalem District Court and a vocal critic of the State Attorney’s Office.

Drori is a staunch supporter of the government’s plan to overhaul the justice system and previously voiced strong criticism of former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit.

The report quoted an unnamed police source decrying the intention to form the commission of inquiry as a “big mistake,” arguing that the step would “severely harm the cyber units and could lead members to resign.”

The report came some two weeks after the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved a non-binding motion urging the government to form such a commission. In April, the panel announced it would establish a subcommittee tasked with probing police use of Israeli-made phone hacking software to spy on Israeli citizens.

The text of the measure, proposed by committee chair Simcha Rothman of the Religious Zionism party, said there were “a number of major questions” over police’s use of spyware that called for examination.

A probe would also underline recognition of past systemic errors and clarify procedures from now on, it said.

Also last month, prosecutors for the first time withdrew evidence from a court case after it became clear that police had obtained it illegally using spyware. Though police had a court order permitting eavesdropping in the case, the use strayed beyond the confines of the order.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman chairs a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on May 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There have been persistent accusations that police have access to a watered-down version of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware which allows them to access Israelis’ phones, including covertly listening in on conversations.

In early 2022, the Calcalist newspaper reported, without providing evidence or citing sources, that dozens of high-profile Israeli figures — including former ministry directors, prominent business figures, and family members and associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — were spied on by police using Pegasus spyware without any judicial oversight.

Investigations by police and an interim report by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari found Calcalist’s reporting to have been largely incorrect, with none of the 26 people supposedly hacked having actually been targeted by police.

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

Nevertheless, the report noted that police had exceeded the bounds of warrants they had received to hack into phones on four occasions, and therefore had the potential to obtain information that was not legally available to them.

In those four instances, Marari’s report noted at the time, the police unsuccessfully attempted to hack into a phone, but obtained no information from the attempt. In two of those cases, police had a warrant to secretly hack and record phone calls, but not to hack into digital communications; in a third, the operation was carried out shortly after the warrant had expired; and in the fourth, police believed they had a warrant and later discovered they did not.

The police source quoted Friday by Channel 12 news argued that since Marari’s probe largely vindicated the police, forming a new commission would be wrong because it would be “based on fake news.”

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