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Police chief defiant amid NSO scandal: ‘Some want to harm our crimefighting ability’

Facing claims of spying on citizens, Kobi Shabtai tells officers force is ‘under attack,’ vows to continue to develop intel tech, insists authorities only use it lawfully

Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai speaks during a ceremony in the northern city of Nazareth, on November 9, 2021 (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai speaks during a ceremony in the northern city of Nazareth, on November 9, 2021 (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

With police facing public outrage over accusations they have regularly used spyware to break into Israelis’ phones without oversight, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai on Friday fiercely defended the force’s conduct, denied any widespread spying and vowed to respond severely to any “isolated incidents” of wrongdoing — if those are discovered.

Shabtai, in a letter sent to members of the force, said that “the police and one of its most important departments have been under attack, and it appears there are those who want to harm its ability to fight serious crime.”

The Calcalist business news outlet first reported on Tuesday that police have for years been making widespread use of NSO’s Pegasus spyware against Israeli civilians, including people not suspected of any crimes, without legal oversight. Further reports of misuse have since emerged.

Shabtai promised that “our lawful use of technological tools will continue, and furthermore we aim to continue to develop and upgrade those tools. A police force that wishes to remain relevant in its fight against crime must behave in such a manner.”

The police chief insisted that any use of spyware technology was done lawfully, with oversight and “in compliance with the necessary legal authorizations.”

He noted that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, in announcing a probe of the allegations on Thursday, had stressed that he had so far found no basis for the claims made in media reports.

Shabtai vowed to cooperate fully with the inquiry. But he said he’d ordered officials “to hold meticulous inquiries into the claims made by the report, and so far we have found no proof that the incidents reported actually happened.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends an event at the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem, on February 6, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“There is not and has not been a scenario where police methodically and systematically harmed the privacy of innocent citizens and protesters,” he wrote. “There is not and has not been a scenario where police violated the unwritten pact of protection with the country’s citizens. There is no basis for the claims of a police force that is spying on its citizens.”

He insisted that “the technological tools at our disposal are directed at criminals or those seeking to carry out dangerous offenses.”

Nevertheless, he added that “if problems arise or isolated incidents are found in which these capabilities were used unlawfully, they will be handled with the appropriate severity. We will not allow any deviation from the norms and values that guide the police.”

Mandelblit informed Shabtai on Thursday of the investigation, to be led by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari.

Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai attends a ceremony for the Jewish new year at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem, on September 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The attorney general said in his missive to police that “it is difficult to overstate the severity of the alleged harm to basic rights” if the report is true.

He said that while the claims “paint a highly concerning picture, [the report] does not include sufficiently concrete information, which makes it difficult to identify the incidents in question.”

He noted that a review of the materials supplied by police to justice officials did not raise concerns of any misuse of technology. However, he stressed that cops had not provided full details on the mechanisms by which they handle the technology.

“Insofar as wrongful conduct is found, it certainly could constitute a criminal offense.”

The explosive Calcalist report sparked an outcry from lawmakers, activists and privacy experts.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who oversees the police, welcomed the investigation as necessary “to make sure there are no bad apples in the system.” He earlier claimed that there was “no practice of wire-tapping or hacking devices by police without a judge’s approval.”

This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel’s NSO Group which features ‘Pegasus’ spyware, on display in Paris, on July 21, 2021. (Joel Saget/AFP)

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. NSO has come under fire for selling Pegasus to authoritarian countries that used the technology to spy on regime critics. The technology was also used to gain unfettered access to senior global public officials’ devices.

NSO would neither confirm nor deny it sold technologies to Israeli police, stressing that it does “not operate the system once sold to its governmental customers and it is not involved in any way in the system’s operation.”

The Calcalist report said police used the spyware against the anti-Netanyahu Black Flag protest movement, two mayors, activists campaigning against LGBT pride parades, an associate of a senior politician and employees in governmental firms.

Calcalist also said Thursday that police targeted a social activist with the spyware, despite the fact that he wasn’t suspected of any crime, and saved potentially embarrassing information about his sex life to use as “leverage” in potential future investigations.

Police have said the specific allegations were “baseless,” but didn’t deny using the software in some cases. They argue the activity was legal and rested entirely on court orders and “meticulous work protocols.”

Illustrative: This file photo taken in Moscow on April 6, 2018, shows a person posing while holding a smartphone with the Telegram messenger application on display. (AFP Photo/Alexander Nemenov)

They have also acknowledged using tools by several companies for phone tapping, without giving specifics.

Thursday’s follow-up report by Calcalist, which did not cite sources, asserted that contrary to police claims, in multiple cases information was extracted using Pegasus during intelligence-gathering — before the initiation of a covert investigation, which is the first stage when police can ask a court for a warrant to tap a target’s phone.

Appearing to acknowledge police use of Pegasus or similar tracking spyware — which wasn’t publicly known before Calcalist’s reports — Shabtai said the allegations of illegal police action should not be used to “delegitimize the very use of these advanced tools,” which he argued would render police unable to tackle serious crime and would “weaken the law enforcement system.”

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, an expert at the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank, said the reported allegations had exposed shortcomings in existing legislation meant to protect the privacy of civilians. She maintained that “you can’t really ask for a court order authorizing Pegasus” because Israeli law does not currently permit such invasive surveillance of its citizens.

“It is now clear that the current Protection of Privacy Law is not equipped to cope with today’s reality,” she said.

Guy Nir, a former head of the police intelligence branch, said he had warned top police officials eight years ago about the problematic nature of the use of Pegasus against civilians, in comments published by Channel 13 Thursday.

“I said… this isn’t the Shin Bet, this isn’t the IDF, not the Mossad. These are civilians, bro, they are not enemies… They’ve gone off the rails,” he said.

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