Analysis |

Police Using Pegasus Spyware Against Israelis Shows: NSO Is an Arm of the State

Not only has Israel used the offensive cyber firm for its foreign relations, but a new report shows its law enforcement and defense agencies have used it for their own needs, too — all with minimal legal oversight

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
A demonstration outside the Israel Police district headquarters in Tel Aviv, in 2020.
A demonstration outside the Israel Police district headquarters in Tel Aviv, in 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

When the coronavirus pandemic was just starting, then-Defense Minister Naftali Bennett had a brilliant idea.

At the time, Israel's Shin Bet security service was making a great effort to exempt itself from the dubious mission the government had imposed on it: Using sophisticated cellphone traffic tracking systems (also known as the “tool”) to trace contacts between people infected with the virus and those they could have infected.

Former Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman really didn’t like his agency being inserted into what was an expressly non-security mission, and Bennett thought he had found a replacement. The offensive cyber company NSO Group offered to the then-defense minister – and today’s prime minister – that the firm take over the huge project.

Luckily, there were those who blocked the daft proposal. Argaman, a man of the dark security organizations, turned out in this affair to be more of an enlightened democrat than most of his superiors in government. Like Bennett, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked also viewed NSO’s employees as the good guys. She even had a personal friend among its top management.

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The offices of Israeli cyber-offensive firm NSO group, in the south of Israel, in August.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Other politicians, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, found a much more effective use for NSO. Over the past few years, a general campaign of Israeli cyber diplomacy has been launched. In places where Netanyahu and Israel's intelligence agencies forged new paths and found new friends, mostly with autocratic regimes, NSO came along as a bonus. Its most advanced spyware product, Pegasus, found its way into the hands of friends, some of whom rushed to put it into action in clear violation of its mission.

While the software was used against terrorists and pedophiles, as promised, it seems that it was also exploited to spy on journalists, human rights activists and government opponents in many countries — from Eastern Europe through the Persian Gulf and across the developing world.

When the Shin Bet's "tool" was put into operation to monitor the spread of COVID, many – including in several articles in this newspaper – warned of a slippery slope. After a government authorizes its intelligence services to use technology to map where millions of citizens are at any given moment, it inches much closer to using the same tracking methods on people whom it doesn’t like very much.

We must remember the times we are talking about: Netanyahu was prime minister because of a dirty trick he played, in which he split Kahol Lavan and joined up with Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, in violation of the promises they made to their voters. The coronavirus regulations forbade citizens from going more than 100 meters from their homes, and the protest movement that demanded Netanyahu’s resignation started to gain steam. The risk of the government appropriating the technology to track the organizers of the demonstrations against the country's lockdown policies or the legitimacy of the government seemed real.

A police station in Kafr Qasem.

Now it has been revealed that this fear materialized indirectly, and not through the Shin Bet. This was exposed on Tuesday in an investigative report by journalist Tomer Ganon in Calcalist, Yedioth Ahronoth’s business daily. According to Ganon, who seems to have based his reporting on a large amount of information and a great deal of checking up – the Israel Police used NSO’s Pegasus software to break into the cellphones of mayors, someone close to a senior politician, and even the leaders of the "Black Flag" protest movement, which called for Netanyahu’s resignation. In other words, the police, using the flimsy excuse of protecting public order, tracked the previous prime minister’s political rivals and exposed their protest plans.

The story reveals a true moral eclipse, which lasted for a while. The response from Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev, and the silence – at least for now – on Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar's part, show neither minister grasps the severity of the matter. A thorough investigation is needed, not vague statements.

The police discovered that cyber break-ins to cellphones were much more effective for them, according to Ganon. Instead of installing wiretaps (signal intelligence eavesdropping) on specific phone numbers and tracking phone calls, they began to spread their fishing nets much wider – by breaking into the phones themselves and monitoring everything that passed through them – in a manner that allowed them to extract unlimited information.

There is another major difference: As far as it is known, all this was done without the approval and oversight of a judge, as is required when installing a wiretap. All of this was hidden from the targets of the monitoring, including from those charged and their lawyers.

Police have vehemently denied many details in the investigation, chief among them the claim that it acted without the approval of judges. This expansive, unrestrained approach by the police was discovered in other investigations, too – by the way – such as in the unbearable ease in which it rummaged through the cellphones of Netanyahu’s advisers.

In an initial probe ordered by Bar-Lev, police said they identified seven of the nine cases reported in the article, though their details differ from the way they were described in the report. The police claim that in some of the cases there was no cyber surveillance, while in other specific instances the monitoring was approved in advance by a judge, as is required by law.

Bar-Lev tends to believe the police examination, but will request additional details. However, if it's proven otherwise, people close to the minister believe, it may turn out to be the start of an epic scandal for Israel's police force.

The police are also examining the possibility that in certain cases, the use of the software was permitted for the purpose of finding the location of suspects, and that perhaps someone used it extensively, without a permit.

In light of the discoveries piling up on the use of Pegasus by dark regimes around the world, NSO is now viewed as a sort of poisonous brand. It is unclear whether the company will survive this crisis, which is certainly encouraging many of its employees to consider other job opportunities. But Gonen’s investigation also reinforces another suspicion: NSO is part of the very heart and soul of the Israeli establishment.

Not only has the government made use of the offensive cyber firm for its foreign relations – Israel's law enforcement authorities, and certainly its defense establishment, has used it for their own needs, too. And all of this was carried out with minimum legal oversight.

Paradoxically, it is possible that the report in Calcalist will even indirectly help the company. NSO – which in its official response to the newspaper report denies, as usual, any knowledge of the nature of the use made of its products – certainly has a lot more information about the methods used not only by the police, but also by other security organizations, while using NSO’s products.

If the company does collapse in the end, under the pressure of the sanctions and investigations coming from the United States and other countries, it will have repercussions for government bodies in Israel, too, and Israel’s international relations. A magnificent final battle is to be expected, which will only come with a great many more casualties.

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