Israel's Attorney General Asks Police to Explain Use of NSO Spyware, Watchdog Opens Probe

Israel's government watchdog has launched a probe into claims that Israeli police spied on citizens and activists with Pegasus software, while Justice Ministry officials say they had no knowledge of such activities

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, last month.
Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, last month.Credit: Fadi Amun

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit sent a letter on Tuesday to Israel's police chief, demanding answers over the force's alleged use of NSO spyware to target Israeli citizens and activists, following a report that revealed police have been using Pegasus spyware against Israeli civilians for years.

Mendelblit asked Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai for answers over allegations that the police hacked into the cell phones of activists who organized demonstrations against the former prime minister and opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu.

Officials close to Mendelblit and the State Prosecutor’s Office noted that hacking into a computer or cell phone without a court order, of which Israel Police are accused in the report, is illegal.

Meanwhile, Israel's state comptroller has launched a probe into the allegations. According to the State Comptroller Matanyahu Engelman's Tuesday statement, he began looking into the "use by law enforcement agencies, and particularly the Israel Police, of technological tools" over the past weeks. The probe, according to the statement, seeks to establish whether the benefits of using of Pegasus or any other technology justifies violations of privacy.

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A protester stands in front of a row of Israeli police during a demonstration against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, last year.

Israel's Justice Ministry, meanwhile, said it is unfamiliar with the use of NSO software as described in the report, which was published Tuesday in the financial daily paper, Calcalist. In addition, the Israeli Judicial Authority said it is unaware of any requests for court orders to use NSO's Pegasus software.

The cyber department at the State Prosecutor’s Office oversees all wiretapping and hacking activities, and according to sources, it has not approved such use of the software or received requests for approval.

The Union of Journalists in Israel called on Mendelblit to open a probe into the revelations concerning NSO's spyware, voicing fears that police may have used it to target journalists and their sources, which the union's legal advisor said would constitute a "severe blow to the freedom of the press."

In a letter to Mendelblit, Attorney Amir Basha asked the attorney general whether he had been aware of permits received by the Israel Police to use NSO spyware to monitor the phones of Israeli journalists, whether he or someone on his behalf had authorized the firm to do so, and whether police had received authorization without a court order.

According to Tuesday’s report in Calcalist, a former Shin Bet official who was appointed Israel’s police chief was the first to make massive use of the system, which the police first bought in 2013, and it has since been used against a list of targets that includes protest leaders, politicians and others.

The report was the first indication that the spyware was being used against Israeli citizens, with investigations overseen only by the police, and the use of Pegasus made without a warrant or court order.

The Pegasus spyware allows its operators to remotely access mobile phones infected with the software. Sold to intelligence and law enforcement agencies across the world, the spyware exploits security vulnerabilities in Android and iPhone operating systems to gain access to the device's contents – from messages to photos. The program also enables to remotely activate the phone’s camera and microphone, without the victim's knowledge.

While Israel advances NSO’s technology abroad, it is known that Pegasus’ usage against Israelis is forbidden – especially for foreign clients. It has long been assumed Israel has no need for such a service as its Shin Bet very likely has such capabilities and does not need to outsource them to a private firm. If true, the report would show how the Shin Bet culture of secretive snooping has trickled into the police, who, unable to develop such tools on their own, turned to NSO to provide the service.

Israel has long helped advance the sale of NSO’s Pegasus and other offensive cyber services as part of what has been dubbed Israel’s “cyber diplomacy.” Among NSO’s most famous past clients are the UAE and reportedly Saudi Arabia, as well as India, Hungary, Mexico and more recently Poland, all countries that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu courted diplomatically. The Project Pegasus investigation, led by Paris-based NGO Forbidden Stories, to which Haaretz was also a partner, revealed the spyware was being used against journalists and human rights activists across the world.

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