NSO Investigation Concludes Israeli Police 'Exceeded Orders,' Sources Say

Investigation of the NSO affair could lead to an admission that police exceeded the limits of their wiretapping warrants, but sources say the report claims they did not hack any phones without court approval

Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit
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The NSO Group company logo is displayed on a wall of a building next to one of their branches in the southern Israeli Arava valley near Sapir community center in February.
The NSO Group company logo is displayed on a wall of a building next to one of their branches in the southern Israeli Arava valley near Sapir community center in February.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP
Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit

The committee appointed to examine the police’s use of offensive spyware tools is expected to report that it did not find any cases in which the police “infected” citizen’s phones with malware without a court order, Justice Ministry officials said on Thursday. However, the final report is also expected to state that in a number of cases the police exceeded the restrictions of their warrants, such as extracting additional information that was not included in the warrant or by using the spyware after the court order had expired, the officials added.

The final report of the team that investigated the use of the hacking tools, headed by Deputy Attorney General Amit Merari, is expected to be released on Thursday, or at most a few days later, and will include recommendations for the police, Knesset and legal system – with the goal of improving and fixing the use of such systems in a manner that will prevent violating the privacy of criminal suspects.

Deputy attorney Amit Merari in 2021.Credit: Yossi Zamir

The investigative team wrote in its statement that it also conducted an in-depth technological examination concerning the telephone numbers of the former director general of the Transportation and Finance ministries, Keren Terner-Eyal, former director general of the Finance Ministry Shai Babad and former director general of the Justice Ministry Emi Palmor. Both the Pegasus system and other systems for wiretapping that the police began using recently were examined, and no evidence was found of the police conducting any wiretapping of the mobile phones of the three, the investigators said.

The examination was based on a list compiled by the police of telephone numbers used by the people mentioned in the investigative report in Israeli daily business newspaper Calcalist. The article explains how phone numbers belonging to these people “do not appear in the system’s database,” the report states. In other words, no evidence exists that spyware was used to hack these phones. “This finding was reinforced in every one of the examinations conducted against the system’s internal databases,” the investigative committee added.

Other systems the police began using recently for wiretapping cellphones were also examined, including a number of phone numbers belonging to the people mentioned in the Calcalist story “against the output of the system’s internal database, which was provided by the private company from which the system was purchased,” and none of these numbers appeared in the system’s internal database.

"We are asserting once more that the use of spyware by the police is illegal, whether a court order is issued or not." The Association for Civil Rights in Israel declared prior to the report's release. "The original sin is the act of purchasing and using spyware that is capable of carrying out such a wide range of illegal actions. The attorney general must continue to forbid the use of spyware by the police."

In the previous report published in February, the public security minister said findings by an investigatory committee probing police use of spyware were "a resounding exoneration," and that the police were expected to ask to continue to use the software.

The committee probing the case then said they had found no evidence of phone tapping without a warrant in the cases of more than two dozen high-profile individuals reportedly hacked with NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, which allows access to the entire contents of an infected cellphone.

The scandal first broke in January when a report in Israeli daily business newspaper Calcalist revealed that a former Shin Bet official who was appointed Israel’s police chief was the first to make massive use of the spyware system on Israelis, which the police first bought in 2013, and it has since been used against a list of targets that includes protest leaders, politicians and others.

The report was the first indication that the spyware was being used against Israeli citizens, with investigations overseen only by the police, and the use of Pegasus made without a warrant or court order.

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