Israel Spyware Scandal: Bennett Vows Action After Police Reportedly Targeted Gov't Officials, Journalists, Activists

Israel Police used NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware without a court order to hack into the phones of Netanyahu's son, lawmakers, businesspeople and activists, report says


Former Finance Ministry Director-General Shai Babed (L), Former Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor and Avner Netanyahu.
Former Finance Ministry Director-General Shai Babed (L), Former Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor and Avner Netanyahu. Credit: Ofer Vaknin, Moti Milrod and Tomer Appelbaum

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Monday the police’s reported use of NSO spyware to hack the phones of government officials, businesspeople and associates of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "won’t go unanswered."

According to a report by Calcalist, the police used NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware without getting a court order to break into 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 Turner and Emi Pamor.

Responding to the report, Bennett said “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.

“As I said, we will not allow this to go unanswered. Apparently very serious things occurred here. We will wait a few more hours and consult with the ministers in question and with the new attorney general.”

Earlier, Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev decided to form a government commission of inquiry to investigate the matter.

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Bar-Lev said the commission would “conduct an in-depth investigation into violations of civil rights and privacy during the years in question."

He stressed that “from the evidence that has emerged, it appears that the failures, if any, occurred under previous police commissioners, public security ministers and previous governments.

“I am looking you straight in the eye, citizens of Israel, and promise you that the commission of inquiry will examine in depth and from every angle all of the allegations,” Bar-Lev added.

“On my watch, such failures will not happen – the police are my responsibility and under my authority, and I vow that if I find any harm to democracy occurred in the past few years, I will condemn it and never allow it to happen again.”

Bar-Lev's decision comes after President Isaac Herzog, ministers and lawmakers called earlier to establish an independent commission of inquiry into the matter.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, in October.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai has also requested a state commission of inquiry into the report.

“The law enforcement system can’t put itself above the law. We must not lose our democracy. We must not lose our police. And certainly we must not lose the public's trust in them. This requires a thorough and complete examination,” Herzog 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.

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, other 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 Mandelblit 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.

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