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Calls across political spectrum to probe Israel Police Pegasus spyware misuse

Knesset members from across the political spectrum are calling for an official probe over publications that police had used the spyware Pegasus to hack phones of citizens without prior court order.
The logo of Israeli cyber company NSO Group is seen in the Arava Desert on Nov. 11, 2021, in Sapir, Israel.

Over the last few days, parties on the left and on the right called on the Knesset speaker to form a parliamentary commission of inquiry to investigate blistering reports about the alleged conduct of the Israel Police. According to these reports, the police tracked the movements and activities of civilians by using a spyware app called Pegasus, which it acquired from Israeli technology firm NSO in 2013. The app was allegedly installed in the cell phones of various social activists and mayors without a warrant, as required by law.

Ever since the financial paper Calcalist first published the results of its investigation Jan. 18, more and more disturbing details have come to light. The police were caught with their pants down, and now, given all of their contradictory statements, it seems that a formal investigation is inevitable. It certainly is a rare incident, especially now when the right and the left are united in their outrage.

The right-wing ultra-Orthodox Shas Party in the last two days demanded that the speaker of the Knesset form a parliamentary commission of inquiry to investigate the use of the spyware, its approval and the criteria for using it. It also asked what sanctions will be taken against those responsible for this fiasco. “It is inconceivable that the police would take the law into its own hands, act against the orders of the legislature without any judicial or other significant oversight, resulting in a serious violation of human rights,” the party wrote to the speaker.

Chair of the left-wing Meretz Party, Knesset member Michal Rozin, also called for an investigation. “The report paints a picture of a severe violation of human rights as well as many laws, and a violation of the principle of the rule of law and democratic norms. The use of this spyware app by the police without a warrant is a severe case of it overstepping its authority and a severe assault on the constitutional rights of the individual, chief among them the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. I ask for an urgent investigation into the groups involved in installing the spyware app, which supposedly exceeded their own authority and caused a serious violation of human rights,” she said.

In addition to all of the above, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) asked State Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to order an immediate investigation into the matter. ACRI's statement said: “The use of the Pegasus spyware program and its surreptitious installation into the cell phones of demonstrators and opponents of the regime, as happens in the most benighted dictatorships, is illegal and demands an immediate, serious and in-depth probe. The police have no authority to track the location of any phone without a warrant or to eavesdrop without a warrant or to search a phone without a warrant.”

The ACRI added, “If evidence collected through this illegal hacking were used to bring people to trial or were whitewashed post facto through a legitimate warrant, the attorney general must notify those people and work to exonerate them immediately.”

The attorney general responded that he would investigate the matter, though he did not say how he would go about this.

What is clear is that calls for a commission of inquiry are not going away. If anything, they are intensifying as more information gets out. As a result, people are furious about the ease with which the police violated the most basic human rights, without any oversight or supervision. Israelis are discovering how fragile Israel’s democracy really is and how no one can be sure that their rights are protected.

Reports that followed the original Calcalist publication revealed that the Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Unit of the Israel Police allegedly marked certain Israelis as intelligence “targets” and created profiles for them based on information acquired through the NSO’s Pegasus app.

Reports claimed these profiles included sensitive, often intimate information obtained by hacking into and taking over the phones of the people being tracked. These profiles, which can appear as printed presentations or computer files, are often kept in the unit’s folders or computers, marked with the target’s name. They are not always erased.

Behind all the technical jargon are chilling accounts of real people, flesh and blood, with names and identities, being tracked by the police. These are people who would "never otherwise be considered the target of such tracking in a democratic state,” the investigative report said.

In one case uncovered by Calcalist, Pegasus was allegedly used to track a social activist who still has no idea that he was a target. This occurred at the time of the demonstrations against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The police investigator explained that such tracking was required because there was allegedly concern that he would be responsible for a public disturbance under exigent circumstances.

How did it work?

The police officer involved in the case gave the target’s phone number to the investigators, and the person’s phone was then breached and infected with Pegasus. From that moment on, the phone was “transparent” to investigators. They could see everything done with it and listen in to every conversation conducted on it.

In the case of the aforementioned social activist, investigators discovered that he uses the Grindr app, which serves as a kind of online dating service for men. This information was put in the file created for him, along with the note “He apparently dates men, even though he is married. This could be leverage for an investigation.’’ The recommendation in the file was for the unit to obtain a wiretapping warrant.

After reading the person’s correspondence with other men via Grindr, investigators informed the District Tracking Unit about his encounters with the men he contacted so that they could track him on the ground.

In order to complete the process, the police classified the information and later asked for an eavesdropping warrant to retrieve the same information again legally. The wiretapping warrant was intended to provide retroactive authorization to what it had already done.

As more real-life cases are revealed, it will become harder for the police to block an investigation. Over the last few days, however, spokespersons for the police have appeared in all of the country’s television studios in an effort to minimize the damage. Inevitably, they deny the claims against them and offer an alternative version according to which everything they did was in accordance with the law. The problem is that reports in the media tell a different story. This is a major source of embarrassment for the Israel Police and its commissioner.

Support for the feeling that the police have been using such problematic methods can be seen in the trial of Netanyahu. His attorneys claimed and even proved that such extreme means were used against people investigated in the case who then went on become state witnesses in his trial. If it turns out that the police used Pegasus while investigating Netanyahu, it could cause a political earthquake on the highest levels.

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