In about-face, police admit misuse of NSO phone hacking tech

Police say new evidence ‘changes the state of affairs,’ after initially denying unauthorized use of Pegasus spyware; Justice Ministry taps committee to probe bombshell claims

Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai attends  a ceremony of the Israeli police in the northern city of Nazareth, November 9, 2021. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)
Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai attends a ceremony of the Israeli police in the northern city of Nazareth, November 9, 2021. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

Israel’s police force admitted on Tuesday that it had found evidence that officers had conducted electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens without receiving proper judicial oversight, reversing an earlier denial of such claims.

After a bombshell report in mid January claiming that law enforcement regularly utilized the NSO Group’s Pegasus hacking spyware against Israeli civilians without court approval, police denied that any such activities were carried out without proper oversight.

But in a statement Tuesday, police noted that during a secondary investigation, “additional findings were discovered that change the state of affairs in certain aspects.”

The police said that the head of its investigations and intelligence division would instruct all members of the force to cooperate with an inquiry into the alleged unauthorized use of the hacking technology.

All officers will be mandated “to respond to its questions, hand in any document or information demanded, allow access to information systems and provide technical knowledge on the measures at the disposal of police.”

Following the initial report last month, outgoing Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ordered police to take immediate action to halt any future such activities and ordered an investigation, and the state comptroller also announced a probe of the situation.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks during an event at Bar Ilan University, March 4, 2020. (Flash90)

The Justice Ministry said Tuesday that one of Mandelblit’s last actions in office before retiring on Monday was to appoint the members of a committee of inquiry into the issue.

The committee will be headed by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari, and will include former Mossad head of technology Tzafrir Katz and former head of investigations at the Shin Bet Eyal Dagan. The committee is expected to publish its findings by July 1.

Echoing the police statement, a Justice Ministry official told the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday that further investigation into the issue has raised concerns.

Gabriela Fisman, head of the ministry’s governmental powers oversight division, told the committee that “additional findings” by the government “changed the picture,” and therefore the attorney general ordered immediate steps to prevent future violations.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv, who heads the committee, said that it was “unreasonable” to wait six months for the full investigation. He called for “interim conclusions” to be made public and debated.

Mandelblit informed Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai of the investigation into police last month, saying that “it is difficult to overstate the severity of the alleged harm to basic rights” if the report is true. But he also said at the time 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.”

The probe into police use of Pegasus is the latest scandal to rock NSO Group, an Israel-based cybertechnology company beleaguered by accusations around the world stemming from sales of the phone hacking technology to regimes accused of using it against activists, journalists, political opponents and others.

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.

In an interview aired over the weekend, NSO Group CEO Asaf Shalev claimed that it was “built-in” to Pegasus that it cannot be used on Israeli cellphone numbers.

NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio speaks with Channel 12 News in an interview aired on January 29, 2022. (Screenshot/Channel 12)

“As a citizen, if the things that were written are true, it worries me personally,” Shalev said about reports of Israel Police usage of the software. “But as a citizen, I tell you I choose to believe the attorney general, the public security minister, and the police chief who say time and again these things never happened.”

The initial report, published in the business news site Calcalist in mid-January, claimed that Israel Police have utilized the spyware for years against Israeli civilians, including people not suspected of crimes, exploiting a legal loophole and keeping the surveillance under tight secrecy without oversight by a court or a judge.

The reported targets of such hacking were several mayors as well as members of their families, organizers of weekly protests against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, an associate of a senior politician, activists campaigning against LGBT pride parades and employees in governmental firms.

The report made waves across Israeli media, and multiple lawmakers from across the political spectrum have called for thoroughly investigating such claims.

Shabtai has fiercely defended the force’s conduct, denied any widespread spying and vowed to respond severely to any “isolated incidents” of wrongdoing — if those are discovered.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who oversees the police force, denied last week that law enforcement broke any rules in its use of such spyware.

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

“I can tell you that all the investigations, including by the attorney general, all the investigations on all the issues raised in the Calcalist article, except for the fact that Israeli police use advanced technology — it all turned out to be incorrect,” Barlev claimed in an interview last month.

He claimed that police had already been able to disprove most of the claims in the report, even though the allegations dated back to 2015, including the central accusation that police illegally tapped into the phones of civilians.

Barlev acknowledged that he had been barred from seeing some of the investigatory material. He said his office was not the one carrying out the investigation and was not involved with the question of which specific technologies were used by police.

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