Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Monday that he supports the Israeli police’s use of NSO’s Pegasus spyware to tackle organized crime, in light of reports that the police used the tool against a variety of targets without a court order.
“You want a tool like this when you’re fighting crime families and serious offenses. I don’t want to discard the tool itself, rather to regulate its use,” Bennett said.
According to a report by Calcalist on Monday, the police used NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware without getting a court order to hack the phones of the former prime minister’s son, Avner; his media advisers Topaz Luk and Jonathan Urich; Iris Elovitch, the wife of former Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch; and the directors general of the finance, justice and transportation ministries – Shai Babad, Keren Terner and Emi Palmor..
In a press conference with reporters, Bennett said that “we have to understand the gravity of the danger posed by crime families in Israel. It’s eating at us from within.”
“The protection [payments demanded by crime organizations] is gnawing at the foundations of our society. In Arab society, it’s been neglected, and we need to take care of it. It’s far worse than I thought. We need all the tools we have to handle this, but we must use them carefully and under close supervision,” the prime minister added.
Bennett reiterated earlier statements he made following the publishing of the report. “The things that were reported, if true, are very serious. This tool (Pegasus), and similar tools, are very important in the war against terror as well as against serious crime, but they are not intended for widespread ‘phishing’ of Israeli citizens or public figures in the State of Israel, therefore we need to learn exactly what happened,” he said.
Pegasus was also deployed against a host of mayors, journalists for the Walla news site, organizers of protests by Ethiopians and the handicapped, supermarket magnate Rami Levy and Yair Katz, the chairman of the workers’ union at Israel Aerospace Industries.
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The latest Calcalist report comes three weeks after the financial daily first reported that the Israel Police had been using NSO spyware without a court order to hack phones of Israelis not suspected of any crimes. The software was deployed by a special operations team inside the police’s cybersecurity unit.
Since then, further revelations have been reported by Calcalist, as well as by Haaretz and other media about alleged police misuse of the spyware. The police initially claimed that an internal probe they conducted found no evidence the software was used without a court order. Last month, former Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit appointed a team to investigate the allegations.
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.