‘Dumb’ phone sales jump in Israel amid fears of NSO’s Pegasus

Importer sees nearly 200% increase in sale of non-smart devices following claims police spied on citizens; finance minister flaunts his own simple phone on Twitter

A teacher holding up his cell phone at the entrance to at an ultra-Orthodox school in Jerusalem on May 6, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A teacher holding up his cell phone at the entrance to at an ultra-Orthodox school in Jerusalem on May 6, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Israeli importer of Nokia products says there has been a 200 percent increase in sales of so-called dumb phones in the last week.

The jump is thought to be driven by Israelis worried about sophisticated spyware like NSO Group’s Pegasus, after reports that police spied on civilians with the software.

Non-smartphone devices have limited internet connectivity if at all, do not allow browsing and don’t have messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram and others — making them more difficult to infiltrate.

The Calcalist financial newspaper, which has not cited any sources or evidence, reported Monday that spyware was deployed without the required judicial oversight against senior government officials, mayors, activist leaders, journalists, as well as former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s family members and advisers.

According to data provided to Walla news by the H.Y. Group, over the past three days, over 4,000 simple Nokia units were purchased. In a normal week, between 1,000 and 2,000 devices are usually sold.

Liav Ron, manager of the Nokia brand in the H.Y. Group, told Walla that “there is a meteoric increase in the sale of old-generation phones… These are simple ‘send and end’ phones which have seen a crazy increase in sales. It came out of nowhere.”

Asked how safe the devices are, he said: “Only hackers and law enforcement can answer this question, but all in all, the old generation feature-phone that is not a smartphone does not have content like Facebook and Instagram, so already there is not much content that can be taken from the device. You can buy simple phones that have WhatsApp, but on most devices, it is just messages and calls.”

The simplest phone available, which only includes the option to receive and make calls and send and receive SMS messages, costs about NIS 100 ($30).

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman flaunted his dumb phone on Twitter on Monday, saying: “For years everyone has asked how I can manage without a smartphone — now everyone knows I manage just great!”

Non-smartphones from the once-ubiquitous Finnish firm Nokia remain popular among some ultra-Orthodox in Israel, who eschew access to the internet but still want to be reachable while away from home. They are also sometimes used by elderly people who find smartphones difficult to manage.

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