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Police minister denies illegal use of NSO spyware, acknowledges public mistrust

Omer Barlev says investigations have found no wrongdoing after report alleged unlawful surveillance of Israelis, but says he’s ‘not surprised’ police denials are being doubted

Police chief Kobi Shabtai, left, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, center, and Northern Command police chief Shimon Lavie, right, during a ceremony in Nazareth, November 9, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
Police chief Kobi Shabtai, left, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, center, and Northern Command police chief Shimon Lavie, right, during a ceremony in Nazareth, November 9, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who oversees the police force, denied on Saturday that law enforcement had broken any laws, amid public outrage over accusations police regularly used spyware to break into Israelis’ phones without oversight.

Barlev said investigations into the affair have so far not turned up any evidence of wrongdoing and he lauded advanced technology used by police, but acknowledged widespread public mistrust of law enforcement.

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

Police have not denied using the technology, and have appeared to acknowledge using tracking spyware — which wasn’t publicly known before Calcalist’s reports — but insist officers did not break any laws.

Barlev said in a combative interview with Channel 12 on Saturday that the reporting was inaccurate and defended police use of advanced technology.

“I can tell you that all the investigations, including by the attorney general, all the investigations on all the issues raised in the Calcalist article, except for the fact that Israeli police use advanced technology — it all turned out to be incorrect,” said Barlev, a member of the center-left Labor party.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced an investigation into the affair on Thursday. Barlev said the investigation had so far found no wrongdoing, but the probe is ongoing.

A branch office of NSO Group near the southern town of Sapir, August 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

He acknowledged the public’s widespread mistrust of police denials following the report.

“Public faith in the Israeli police was already low, so — and I don’t like saying this — I’m not surprised that public faith in police didn’t get stronger” due to the affair, Barlev said wryly.

He said police had already been able to disprove most of the claims in the report, even though the allegations dated back to 2015, including the central accusation that police illegally tapped into the phones of civilians.

Barlev acknowledged that he had been barred from seeing some of the investigatory material. He said his office was not the one carrying out the investigation and said he did was not involved with specific technologies used by police.

He said he had been able to quickly dismiss the Calcalist report’s claims after it came out because the news site had contacted police for comment before publishing, so he knew about the case before it went public.

Barlev said he was not bothered by the reports of police using advanced technology in investigations.

“I’m very happy Israeli police have advanced tools to deal with very tough crime organizations that use the most advanced technologies,” he said.

He denied claims police had first collected information using the spyware, then sought approval later, once an investigation had started.

Yigal Ben Shalom, the head of the police’s investigation branch, also defended police use of advanced technology in a Friday interview with Channel 13.

“There is no tracking and there is no spying by any means against innocent people. We do act and we will continue to act against criminals and businesses involved in serious crimes. We will thwart them and find them and bring them to trial,” he said.

“Israel Police, in the digital era, cannot get left behind,” he said. “All criminals use digital tools to advance their criminal activities. There is no way Israel Police will act to eradicate crime without these tools.”

Mandelblit informed Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai of the investigation into police on Thursday, saying 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.

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

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.”

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

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.

Black Flag anti-Netanyahu protesters in Migdal HaEmek on October 15, 2020. (Courtesy/Black Flag)

The news outlet 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.”

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

Shabtai, in a letter sent to members of the force, said Friday 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.”

Appearing to acknowledge police use of Pegasus or similar tracking spyware, 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.”

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