Israel's Justice Ministry Never Approved Police Use of NSO Spyware to Sweep Data

The ministry says it only authorized NSO's Pegasus for wiretapping, not for the software’s other functions ■ Israel's state prosecutor suspects police failed to hand over all information

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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The offices of Israeli cyber offensive firm NSO Group, in southern Israel, in July.
The offices of Israeli cyber offensive firm NSO Group, in southern Israel, in July.Credit: AMIR COHEN/Reuters
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Israel Police’s use of NSO Group's spyware to sweep up data from smartphones was never authorized by the Justice Ministry, Haaretz has learned.

Israel's State Prosecutor has discovered in recent weeks that the police's cyber-SIGINT unit used NSO’s Pegasus software not only to listen in on phone conversions, as had been approved, but also to search devices and collect data from them.

All technology-based systems deployed by the police must first be validated and subject to controls by the Justice Ministry to ensure that any evidence gathered by them and later used by prosecutors stand up in court.

But according to an exposé on Monday by the Calcalist, the Israeli financial daily, the police used NSO software without a court order to break into the phones of a host of public figures, business leaders, ministry officials and close associates of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The targets included Netanyahu’s son, Avner; his media advisers Topaz Luk and Jonathan Urich; and the directors general of the financial, justice and transportation ministries — Shai Babad, Keren Terner and Emi Palmor.

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

The police also used Pegasus to collect data from the phones of mayors, journalists at the Walla news site, the leaders of Ethiopian and disabled protest movements as well as supermarket magnate Rami Levi and Yair Katz, the chairman of the Israel Aerospace Industries workers’ committee, according to Calcalist.

Until the latest Calcalist story broke early on Monday, police and prosecutors were ready to announce that the spyware had never been used without a court order, except in rare instances.

The State Prosecutor's Office now believes that the police failed to hand over to them all the information there is on the use of Pegasus and other spyware systems. Officials from the office said their investigation had found that senior police officials often did not fully understand the spyware they were using and relied on advice from junior officers. The officials said that in other instances, current officers laid the blame for misuse on their predecessors, some of whom are no longer with the force.

Law enforcement officials, who initially believed at the start of the investigation that use of the spyware was occasional at most, admitted on Monday that it appeared that the police cybersecurity unit had deployed Pegasus widely and without court approval.

They said the practice was carried out to win points with police intelligence while commanders turned a blind eye. It is now believed that Pegasus was used in hundreds of investigations, although the police still insist that in the majority of them the software was used with a court order.

Brig Gen. (ret.) Yoav Hassan, who headed the cybersecurity unit during the time of the reported misuse of the spyware, told Haaretz on Monday the allegations were not true.

“I’ve seen the exposé, and I have said in the past that everything was done according to the law and I stand by that today. We didn’t do anything without an order; everything that was done had a legal basis that allowed for it,” he said.

Roni Alsheich, who was chief of police during the time in question, continued his refusal to comment, though sources close to him said the reports didn’t contain “a grain of truth.”

Inside the current police administration, the latest revelations have raised tensions between police chief Kobi Shabtai and Yigal Ben-Shalom, who heads the investigations and intelligence division. Shabtai, as well as Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev, had relied on Ben-Shalom and his officers' assurance that the media reports were not true and that the division’s activities were all conducted within the law.

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