Police chief doesn’t deny use of spyware, says it wasn’t deployed against protesters

Kobi Shabtai says some claims inaccurate in explosive report about use of NSO’s Pegasus software on Israeli civilians; anti-Netanyahu protesters call for his suspension

Police chief Kobi Shabtai visits at roadblock outside Jerusalem during a COVID-19 lockdown, on January 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police chief Kobi Shabtai visits at roadblock outside Jerusalem during a COVID-19 lockdown, on January 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai on Tuesday did not deny that police used NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware against Israeli citizens, but said some of the allegations made in an explosive report on police tracking were incorrect, and insisted that everything was done with the appropriate warrants and oversight.

Shabtai denied claims the technology by the controversial Israeli surveillance firm had been used against anti-Netanyahu protesters, local authorities and people opposed to pride parades.

“The Israel Police does not use its advanced technological abilities against innocent civilians and protesters,” Shabtai said in a statement released by police.

“I ordered an investigation into all the cases from the article, which allegedly occurred years ago. The investigation showed that some of them are incorrect, and everything was done with all required legal approvals,” Shabtai said.

“No tools of this type were used against Black Flag protesters, local authorities and opponents of the pride parade. Those details are incorrect,” he said. The Black Flags is a name of one of the groups that led mass protests against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during 2020-2021, demanding his resignation over his criminal trial.

Police had said earlier Tuesday that the allegations were “baseless,” and that all operations were legally approved and supervised, but also did not deny using the spyware.

An explosive report in the Calcalist business news outlet on Tuesday said police have for years been making widespread use of Pegasus against Israeli civilians, including people not suspected of any crimes, exploiting a legal loophole and keeping the surveillance under tight secrecy, without oversight by a court or a judge.

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 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.

Members of the ‘Black Flag’ movement protest outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu goes on trial for criminal allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, on May 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

It said employees of NSO were involved in hacking the phones and that in the process, they were exposed to classified information they weren’t allowed to have.

In Shabtai’s response to the report, the police chief did not deny that it used the company’s spyware, but said that “everything is done with the required legal approvals.”

“I’m proud of the combination of technological systems that have become an arrowhead in the war against crime, violence and criminals. The use of advanced technology in the fight against crime is in the national interest,” Shabtai said.

The use of such technology is “one of the most controlled and supervised areas by all legal entities both inside and outside the police,” he said.

Protest leaders blasted the police and the government of Netanyahu for allegedly implementing the program.

The Black Flag protest group said, “The job of the police in a democracy is to protect civilians. If the article turns out to be correct, the police during the Netanyahu-Ohana era became an organization that persecutes civilians.”

Amir Ohana was the public security minister, who oversees police, under Netanyahu in 2020-2021. He said he had no knowledge of the reported surveillance. The report said Pegasus was purchased by police far earlier, in 2013. There have been five different police ministers since that time.

Likud MK Amir Ohana attends a Knesset committee meeting, on December 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The group called for current Public Security Minister Omer Barlev to immediately publish the names of Israelis who were monitored with the spyware.

Eldad Yaniv, one of the leaders of the anti-Netanyahu protests, said, “I really hope that Minister Barlev understands his agenda today: Order Shabtai to a hearing immediately — and if the Calcalist report is correct — submit a serious complaint against him to police investigators and suspend him immediately.”

Amir Haskel, a prominent protest leader, said he “wasn’t surprised by the allegations.”

“The use of software to follow protest leaders suits former public security minister Amir Ohana, who did everything to suppress the protests.”

The Israel Internet Association said, “If police use NSO technology to track Israeli civilians without supervision or appropriate order — it’s an earthquake.”

The allegations “should cause worry to every citizen of the State of Israel,” the group said.

Barlev tweeted that after an “inquiry” into the matter, “there is no practice of tracking, or hacking of devices, by the Israel Police without a judge’s approval.

“At the same time, I intend to ensure no corners are being cut on the issue of NSO and that every small detail is checked and approved by a judge,” he said.

MK Mossi Raz of the coalition party Meretz said all of his party’s lawmakers have contacted Barlev, demanding that Israel “immediately halt any use of the Pegasus tool against civilians.”

“An inquiry isn’t completed in a single morning, and when civil rights are on the line, there is a need for transparency and deep public discussion,” Raz added.

A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, on August 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

Cabinet minister Karine Elharrar told Israeli Army Radio that such surveillance “was something that a democratic country cannot allow.”

Opposition lawmaker Yuval Steinitz said that surveillance of citizens by law enforcement without judicial oversight was improper and that if the claims are correct, it should be investigated.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party called on the Knesset speaker to launch a parliamentary investigation. Merav Ben Ari, a coalition lawmaker who heads the Knesset’s internal security committee, said the panel would hold a hearing into the report’s claims.

Tuesday’s Calcalist report said that, in some cases, NSO Group’s spyware was installed on civilians’ phones to obtain information unrelated to an existing investigation, with the purpose of using the information later as leverage against suspects in questioning. In other cases, police obtained incriminating information using the spyware and later claimed the source of the information couldn’t be revealed since it would expose intelligence assets.

NSO has been involved in countless scandals in recent years and has faced a torrent of international criticism over allegations it helps governments, including dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, spy on dissidents and rights activists. In November, the United States Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO Group, adding it to the list of foreign companies that engage in malicious cyber activities.

The exposé said the Israel Police acquired Pegasus as far back as December 2013, under commissioner Yohanan Danino, and started using it during the tenure of Danino’s successor Roni Alsheich, a former veteran Shin Bet official who served as police chief from December 2015 until December 2018. The report, which didn’t cite sources, didn’t say whether Pegasus is still being used today under Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, but said it was used as late as 2020.

Responding to the investigation, NSO didn’t deny that the Israel Police was a client, arguing that the firm wasn’t involved in customers’ use of its product and was operating legally.

NSO said: “As a rule, we don’t comment on existing or potential customers. We would like to clarify that the company doesn’t operate the systems in possession of its customers and isn’t involved in their operation. Company employees aren’t exposed to targets, information about them, operational activities by clients or any information related to investigations led by them.

“The company sells its products under license and supervision for the use of state security and law enforcement authorities to prevent crime and terror legally and in accordance with court warrants and local laws in each country.”

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