NSO Sues Israeli Newspaper Over Police Pegasus Scandal

NSO claims the daily's reporting was foreign to 'professional, responsible, and impartial journalism'

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, in August.
A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, in August.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner /AP
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

NSO Group filed a libel suit on Sunday against the Hebrew financial daily Calcalist for a series of reports alleging that the Israel police misused the company's Pegasus spyware to surveil civilians.

The NSO group said "It seems that this is not a journalistic investigation, but rather a one-sided, biased and false publication which has been made public in a way which raises concern that the newspaper's actions aim to serve a purpose that is completely foreign to professional, responsible and impartial journalism."

Israel’s Pegasus scandal looked like the scoop of the decade. So where’s the proof?

Two weeks ago, the firm sent a warning letter to the Israeli financial daily over one of the reports. In the report, the publication said that NSO covers its tracks and block documentation of actions taken with the spyware. By doing so, the report said, it's impossible to thoroughly investigate the use of the program and its list of targets.

NSO denied the allegations and added that the report, much like other reports by the Israeli daily, does not provide the necessary proof or evidence. According to the company, it decided to sue on Sunday after the newspaper did not respond to its letter and failed to publish a correction to what NSO called "the false statements that were published."

The company made clear in its statement regarding the lawsuit that it does not operate the information systems that are in its clients' possession and does not have access to the information on them. NSO said the systems are only on-site at the client, and in addition NSO does not control them through "cloud architecture," as NSO described it. The systems automatically save logs that fully document any operation performed by the client and the client cannot change or delete it, NSO said.

NSO also said that the team that then-Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit convened before leaving office at the end of January to investigate allegations of misuse of the spyware by the Israel Police found no evidence that the police used the spyware without a search warrant to hack into the phones of the individuals mentioned in the Calcalist series.

The team found that warrants were issued to tap into the cellphones of three of the 26 people mentioned in the series and that the police only attempted to hack into the phones of two of the three individuals. In one case, that of Shlomo Filber, the former director general of the Communications Ministry, the police were successful in hacking into the phone. In the second case, that of Iris Elovitch, the wife of the controlling shareholder at the time of Bezeq telecommunications, Shaul Elovitch, the police did not manage to breach the phone. Iris Elovitch is a defendant in the current corruption case against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Filber is a witness for the state in the case.

The attorney general's investigative team also said that it thoroughly investigated allegations that the phones of the former director general of the finance and transportation ministries, Keren Terner-Eyal; former Finance Ministry Director General Shai Babad; and former Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor. The team said that it looked for the use of NSO's Pegasus software on the phones as well as other software that the police have recently used for telephone wiretapping and found no evidence that the police had hacked into the phones of any of the three.

The team said that the investigation was based on a list of the phone numbers of the individuals mentioned in a Calcalist report on February 7. The phone numbers of the three "do not appear in the system database," the team concluded, meaning that there was no evidence of the use of spyware to hack into the phones. "This finding was confirmed with each type of check that was performed regarding the internal system data," the team said in a statement.

For its part, NSO said that its libel suit was filed "only for the purpose of getting to the truth and making it public and for this reason it announced that any compensation awarded [by the court] would be contributed to nonprofits benefitting Holocaust survivors and victims of sexual assault."

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