Israel Police use of NSO spyware set to be probed by Knesset subcommittee

Panel will discuss findings and recommendations of dossier produced last year by Deputy Attorney General Amit Merari

A photographic illustration shows a mobile phone near the NSO Group company logo in the Israeli city of Netanya on February 9, 2022. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
A photographic illustration shows a mobile phone near the NSO Group company logo in the Israeli city of Netanya on February 9, 2022. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee announced on Sunday that it would establish a subcommittee tasked with probing police use of Israeli-made wiretapping software Pegasus to spy on Israeli citizens by hacking their phones.

Persistent accusations have alleged that police have access to a watered-down version of Pegasus, known as Saifan, which reportedly allows police access to Israelis’ phones, including the ability to covertly listen to conversations.

In a statement, the committee, which is chaired by MK Simcha Rothman, said the panel to be established would discuss the findings of a report produced last year by Deputy Attorney General Amit Merari, who has been probing police use of the invasive software.

Rothman added that the subcommittee would have only a few members due to the sensitivity of the information likely to be shared, and that it would conduct sessions both behind closed doors and publicly, beginning next week.

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 former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — were spied on by police using the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware without any judicial oversight.

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

MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, at a committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 20, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Nevertheless, the report noted that the police 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, the police unsuccessfully attempted to hack into a phone, but received 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.

Police at the time promised that any such unlawful instances, errors or violations “will be fully addressed” by a team within the Israel Police and that “any necessary adjustments will be made.”

Along with a series of recommendations for how to navigate use of such technological methods, the report suggested that the approval of the attorney general be required for any such new technologies, that a team be established to work with the police’s own legal department, and that better oversight of such issues be put in place.

Amy Spiro contributed to this report. 

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