6 months after report alleged abuse of NSO's Pegasus spyware

Probe finds Israel Police did not unlawfully hack phones of politicians, activists

Justice Ministry investigation dismisses most allegations, but says police exceeded authority by extracting information from hacked phones that was not covered by cyber warrants

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Illustrative: A man holds a phone with the NSO Group logo (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Illustrative: A man holds a phone with the NSO Group logo (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

An in-depth Justice Ministry report published Monday largely rejected explosive allegations that the Israel Police had used spyware to illegally hack the phones of dozens of private citizens, finding that police acted largely in accordance with the law and did not use such spyware without legal oversight.

Nevertheless, the report noted that the police repeatedly exceeded the bounds of cyber warrants they had received to hack into phones, and therefore received information that was not legally available to them.

Israel Police welcomed the publication of the report as a vindication of its activities, noting that the investigation found that “no deliberate activity was carried out in violation of the law.” It lauded the investigation as “proof that the Israel Police acted with integrity.”

The investigative team headed by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari was convened in January in the wake of a bombshell Calcalist report alleging that police were using the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware against politicians and activists without any judicial oversight.

The 100-page Justice Ministry report released on Monday largely confirms the initial findings it published in February: that police did not hack the phones of most names included on the list published by Calcalist and that it did not act without judicial oversight.

“It was found that there was no indication that allegations that phones were tapped without a warrant were true,” the new report stated. With the exception of four instances, the report said, Israel Police “acted with lawful authority.”

A woman checks the website of Israel-made Pegasus spyware at an office in the Cypriot capital Nicosia on July 21, 2021. (Mario Goldman/AFP)

In those four instances, the report noted, the police unsuccessfully attempted to hack into a phone, but received 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.

In a statement, the Justice Ministry team declared that “there is no basis to the claim that the Israel Police is tapping the cellphones of individuals without suspicion of criminal activity and without judicial oversight.” On the contrary, it noted, its investigation left the impression that “the cyber division ensures that phone tapping is carried out only after warrants have been received.”

Nevertheless, the report said that its team did uncover exceptions, including the fact that police were receiving information from affected phones that they were not privy to under the wiretapping law. According to the report, police should have only collected information from before the date of the warrant issued, but “in many cases” police gained access to information from after that date as well.

In addition, such warrants only covered digital communication between phones, and not information stored on phones like contacts, applications, and calendar information — yet police had access to such details when it used the “Saifan” version of NSO’s Pegasus spyware.

Police said 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.”

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev attends a Labor faction meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev welcomed the full Justice Ministry report for “officially revealing the truth” and “proving that the harsh allegations against the police were false accusations with no connection to reality.” Barlev said the unlawful activities raised by the report “will be addressed and fixed by the Israel Police.”

Pegasus is an extremely powerful tool that delivers a zero-click exploit — requiring no user interaction — allowing the spyware’s operator to remotely gain access to all of a phone’s data and functionality. It also enables operators to listen in on calls and use it as a listening device. NSO says that the “Saifan” version of the software used in Israel is weaker and has fewer capabilities.

The Justice Ministry team stated that it did not find any indication that the Israel Police intentionally overstepped the bounds of the cyber warrants it received, and did not use any of the information it received in that manner, but that nevertheless, it should have adjusted the scope of the software to only receive data approved under the warrant.

Along with a series of recommendations for how to navigate such technological methods, the report suggested that the attorney general approve 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.

Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari. (Courtesy)

In its own statement responding to the report, the Israel Police said that the “serious allegations against the conduct of the police turned out to be wrong, but unfortunately caused great damage to the public’s trust in the police.”

A police source told Channel 12 news that the suspension of its legitimate use of the spyware in recent months, while the probe into the allegations of misuse was carried out, “prevented investigators from thwarting 10 murders that could have been stopped via use of the [spyware], as well as cases of pedophilia on the internet.”

The Justice Ministry team said it spent hundreds of manpower hours and held around 50 meetings in the past six months to fully investigate the claims, working with technical experts and all the relevant officials to the case — as well as with editors at Calcalist. It also noted that it checked such allegations against other software capabilities maintained by the Israel Police aside from the controversial Pegasus spyware.

The original release of the Calcalist report at the beginning of this year sent shockwaves through Israeli society and the political echelon. The report claimed without evidence that dozens of high-profile figures — including former ministry directors, prominent business figures, and family members and associates of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — were spied on by police. MKs across the political spectrum had demanded a state inquiry into the affair.

Yet the story began to disintegrate after the initial Justice Ministry probe found no evidence that the vast majority of the allegations were true.

The original Calcalist report claimed that more than 30 people had been illegally hacked by police, including Avner Netanyahu, the son of the former prime minister; prominent businessman Rami Levy; Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of Walla; Netanya mayor Miriam Feirberg; and a series of activists.

The allegations also became entangled with the ongoing corruption trial of Benjamin Netanyahu, although prosecutors said that any instances of phone hacking connected to the investigation of the former prime minister were carried out with a warrant.

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