Knesset passes motion urging government to probe police use of spyware

Non-binding measure says investigation should answer ‘a number of major questions’ over force’s alleged illicit hacking of citizens’ phones

File: A person types on a laptop keyboard, June 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
File: A person types on a laptop keyboard, June 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday approved a motion urging the government to form an official commission of inquiry to probe alleged illicit use of spyware by police against citizens.

The vote was 8-2, with Labor MK Gilad Kariv joining with the coalition to back the resolution. Opposition Yesh Atid MKs Yoav Segolovitz and Shelly Tal Meron opposed it.

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

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

The measure is non-binding and it was not clear whether there was support in the government for such a move, which came after the panel announced in April it would establish a subcommittee tasked with probing police use of Israeli-made wiretapping software to spy on Israeli citizens by hacking their phones.

It also came a week after prosecutors for the first time withdrew evidence from a court case after it became clear that police 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, chars 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.

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)

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.

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.

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