Legislators examine gaps in surveillance laws: ‘No one foresaw’ NSO spyware tech

Amid outrage over claims police spied on citizens, key Knesset panel head acknowledges regulations are insufficient for current technological capabilities

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Lawmakers on Wednesday acknowledged the need to address apparent gaps between existing surveillance oversight and current technological capacity.

Their stated commitment to investigate and provide oversight over the murky world of cutting edge surveillance technology comes one day after a Hebrew-language newspaper published explosive claims that police have been using the cellphone surveillance software Pegasus to gain access to Israeli citizens’ phones.

Pegasus is the flagship product of the embattled NSO Group cybersecurity company, which has come under fire for selling its Pegasus technology to authoritarian countries who used the technology to spy on regime critics. The technology was also used to gain unfettered access to senior global public officials’ devices.

Since the allegations were published, police officials have made the rounds on Hebrew-language radio and television shows to deny that the force spied on innocent civilians, but have not denied that police used the controversial Pegasus technology, saying only that any use was done with proper legal oversight.

Yoav Telem, the deputy head of the police investigations department, told Channel 12 on Tuesday evening that the police have “tools” to carry out “wiretaps,” and that wiretaps receive court approval.

“We have authorizations and tools, according to the law. Everything we use for wiretapping… is under tight oversight,” said Telem. “I don’t know one example [of an investigation] that was done without an approval from an oversight body and a court order.

“There’s no gray area, we have the ability to wiretap and received approvals from oversight bodies and the court to do so.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, himself a target of Pegasus software attacks, speaks on his cellphone during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, on July 20, 2020. (John Thys, Pool Photo via AP)

Pegasus, however, goes far beyond wiretapping, as it has the ability to fully access and control a target’s phone and all its data.

Wednesday’s Knesset constitutional committee opened by addressing these criticisms head on.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar (New Hope) acknowledged the discrepancy between the investigating newspaper Calcalist’s allegations and police responses.

“There is an unbridgeable gap between allegations in the Calcalist article and official statements by the police. It’s good that the state comptroller, as an impartial body, took it upon himself to check and according to what has been told to me, the attorney general is also checking. The [justice] ministry did not know about any activity done without a court order.”

MK Gilad Kariv leads a Knesset constitutional committee meeting, December 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Committee chair MK Gilad Kariv (Labor) addressed another gap — between existing oversight mechanisms and the reality of today’s technology.

“Existing legislation authorizing the police to wiretap and search was enacted at a time when no one foresaw the technological power of the tools available today — and it must be ensured that today’s legislation fits the technological age and that the internal procedures and controls are tight enough,” said Kariv.

According to Kariv’s statements in the committee meeting, a number of oversight bodies will be involved in examining how to handle the current technological capabilities, among them the judiciary, which oversees approval of surveillance tools; the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which deals with search laws; and the Knesset Public Security Committee, which provides oversight on the police.

“I will examine what other existing mechanisms there are in the parliamentary oversight of these tools’ day-to-day operation,” Kariv said.

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