Levin to set up commission of inquiry into alleged illicit police use of spyware

Justice minister says he will establish committee headed by vocal critic of State Attorney’s Office to probe law enforcement, advise on ‘comprehensive regulation’ of tech

Justice Minister Yariv Levin at a cabinet in Jerusalem on May 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Justice Minister Yariv Levin at a cabinet in Jerusalem on May 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced Thursday that he will set up an official commission of inquiry to probe the alleged illicit use of cyber-surveillance tools and spyware by law enforcement bodies against citizens.

The inquiry will include a probe into the deployment by police of the powerful, Israeli-made Pegasus tool, which enables access to cell phones, including covertly listening in on conversations.

Levin said he will seek the government’s approval to give the commission investigative powers “to review the conduct of the police, the State Attorney’s Office and their supervisory systems, in all matters relating to the procurement, monitoring and collection of information using cybernetics tools against citizens and office holders,” his office said in a press announcement Thursday.

The intent, according to the statement, is to implement “comprehensive regulation and provide a normative infrastructure for the use of advanced technological tools” to shore up public trust in law enforcement following the 2022 Pegasus affair, while balancing “the need to protect the right to privacy on the one hand, and to give enforcement agencies effective tools to fight crime and corruption on the other hand.”

The commission will examine the past uses of such tools and make recommendations on future uses to ensure transparency in how they are used by law enforcement systems while providing privacy protections, his office said.

Levin said Israeli citizens were “entitled to privacy and to the fact that any investigative procedure will be conducted in accordance with the law, while respecting the rights” of suspects under interrogation, witnesses, and others.

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 commission 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.

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

Levin’s commission of inquiry will submit its conclusions within six months after first convening, his office said

There have been persistent accusations that police have access to a watered-down version of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, known as Saifan, which allows them to access Israelis’ phones.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

The Herzliya-based spyware firm NSO Group has been on a US government blacklist since last year.

The firm’s flagship spyware, 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.

The company has been under fire over the alleged use of its spyware technology by authoritarian regimes to carry out human rights abuses. It insists its product is meant only to assist countries in fighting crime and terrorism.

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