According to Israeli media reports, the local police have been using Pegasus spyware to hack the phones of civilians, including politicians, local government officials and anti-government protest leaders, for several years. Often – according to the findings of the press – without a court order. The Israeli services deny these accusations. Israel’s prosecutor general ordered an investigation into the matter, and the parliamentary commission on public safety is also to investigate it.
The case was first described on Tuesday by the financial daily “Kalkalist”. The first to use the system en masse, according to the newspaper Pegasus, purchased by the Israeli police in 2013, was to be the former Shin Bet security and counterintelligence official, Roni Alshekh, who was appointed head of the Israeli police in 2015. The daily Haarec received a copy of the invoice between Pegasua’s creator, NSO, and the Israeli police, showing proof of software purchase.
Who were the Israeli services spying on?
According to the sources of the “Kalkalist” newspaper, the targets of the Israeli police include, among others politicians, local government officials, leaders of anti-government demonstrations, as well as government officials who, although not accused of committing crimes, had access to information that could turn out to be crucial in the investigations.
The Israeli police were also supposed to use Pegasus to gather broad intelligence, for example to spy on potentially dangerous anti-LGBT activists after the 2015 murder of a young girl during an equality parade in Jerusalem. As the use of Pegasus was to be kept secret, in a few cases the intelligence gathered through it was to be “whitened”, meaning that information collected from a secret source was assigned to another so as not to reveal its origin.
Kalkalist stresses in Tuesday’s text that many of these cases, such as the investigation into the illegal sharing of nude photos, could theoretically involve legitimate targets, but were conducted without supervision and without legal justification.
On Sunday, the daily published another article in which it describes in detail cases of surveillance of Israeli local government chiefs, as well as their families, friends and associates. “All cases were closed without indictment,” reads the article. “What did the selection of a particular local government official decide about? Sometimes the reason was trivial: a large tender announced in a city or town, large construction projects, a person who came and said something without presenting evidence, a newspaper article – and even, surprisingly, a simple hunch It was enough to pass the number of the “target” in the hope that the intelligence would find something. At this stage, the MM team (Special Operations Team in the secret cybernetic police division – ed.) Was entering, technology intelligence personnel hooked up the target to the Pegasus software and began searching for information “- writes the journal.
Investigation into law enforcement practices
On Thursday, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ordered an investigation to investigate police surveillance techniques in connection with reports of abuse of spyware by law enforcement agencies. Mandelblit said it had set up a team led by his deputy to investigate the matter “in a systematic and thorough manner”. He stressed the “seriousness of the alleged violations of fundamental rights”.
On Tuesday, Israeli MP Meraw Ben-Ari announced that the parliamentary public safety committee she chaired would meet next week to question police officers on the Kalkalist news. – Many members of parliament approached me today. This is a very disturbing incident, raising concerns about an infringement of privacy and democracy as such, she said.
The police have denied the journal’s reports
The Israeli police admitted using spyware. However, she denied the allegations made in the “Kalkalista” article, saying that she “acts in accordance with the powers conferred on it by law and, when necessary, in accordance with court orders and rules and regulations established by the relevant authorities.”
On Saturday evening Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lew, who oversees the Israeli police force, said all the claims made in the Kalkalist – “except that the Israeli police use advanced technology” – were untrue. He added that the police chief Kobi Shabtai also assured him that the journal’s reports were false. “The main allegation that the police are carrying out illegal surveillance is not true,” he said, quoted by the Haaretz daily. “I am very pleased that the Israeli police have technologically advanced tools to help fight criminal organizations that also use advanced technology,” said Bar-Lew.
Israeli “Cyber Diplomacy”
Israel has long helped sell Pegasus and other cyber services under what has been dubbed Israeli “cyber diplomacy.” In July, the results of an international journalistic investigation of 17 media were published, which found that the software allowed the tracking of at least 180 journalists, 600 politicians, including three presidents, 10 prime ministers and one king, and 85 human rights activists and 65 business leaders from different countries.
The most famous clients of NSO were the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as well as India, Hungary, Mexico and Poland.
The human rights group Front Line Defenders revealed a few months ago that Pegasus was used to spy on Palestinians cooperating with human rights organizations banned by Israel.
Pegasus allows remote access to infected mobile phones. Sold to intelligence and law enforcement agencies around the world, spyware uses vulnerabilities in the Android and iPhone operating systems to gain access to device contents – from messages to photos. The program also allows you to remotely activate the phone’s camera and microphone without the victim’s knowledge.
Kalkalist, Haaretz, Reuters, PAP
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