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Reports of 'Unprecedented' Police Abuse of Spyware Against Civilians Shakes Israel

A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, Aug. 24, 2021. (AP Photo)
A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, Aug. 24, 2021. (AP Photo)

JERUSALEM, Israel – Recent reports of the illegal use of spyware against Israeli civilians have moved the scandal to a new level. There are now allegations police used the technology against family and close associates of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called the reports “unacceptable in a democratic state.”

“These cyber tools are intended to fight terror, intended to fight crime, severe crime – they were not intended to be used against citizens. We will ensure to check the matter in a transparent, profound, and swift way. Because all of us, the citizens of the State of Israel, us the ministers of the government, to all systems, we all deserve answers,” said Bennett.

Netanyahu’s response was even stronger.

"This is a black day for the State of Israel. Without referring to my issue, which of course has wide implications, I think this case concerns all citizens of the country – not right, not left, all citizens of the country without exception. Something inconceivable has happened here,” said Netanyahu.

The Israeli publication Calcalist first reported that police used Pegasus spyware to hack phones of Israelis, including Netanyahu’s son Avner, and members of his inner circle.

"Officials in the police illegally spied with the most aggressive tools in the world, after countless civilians – journalists, social activists from right and left, heads of cities, businessmen, politicians and their families.  Who was not (spied on)?  Citizens were stripped naked. They were followed, listened to, had their most hidden secrets (exposed), and who knows what improper use was made of this espionage,” said Netanyahu.

One of those who was reportedly spied on is former Netanyahu aid turned state witness Shlomi Filber, scheduled to testify against Netanyahu in the next few days. If the allegations are true, some analysts believe it could be enough to have the case against Netanyahu thrown out of court, creating yet another political earthquake. 

Jonathan Klinger, an Attorney for the Digital Rights Movement, calls the scandal “unprecedented.”

“It is borderline on espionage and treason by an internal authority, and this is highly problematic,” he told AP. 

Pegasus spyware is produced by the Israeli company NSO Group, which maintains it doesn’t disclose clients and has no access to the intelligence that’s collected. The company’s signature Pegasus software works by secretly installing itself on a device without any knowledge or action from the user. Security researchers say Pegasus then transforms the iPhone into a silent spying device with full access to the user’s data, messages, microphone and camera. 

The company adds that all sales are approved by Israel’s Defense Ministry because the spyware is used by governments to fight crime and terrorism.

Klinger says current Israeli law makes it “nearly impossible” to install spyware programs on civilian phones except for national security issues.

“This means that the collection of data was immense and unprecedented, all done illegally, creating and establishing a database that might harm everyone else and without any legal oversight over this. This is highly problematic, highly unprecedented and highly illegal. If someone at the top knew about it, they as well have to face legal action,” says Klinger.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog says law enforcement agencies cannot treat the law lightly while fulfilling the law.

“Whoever enforces the law must be strict with mild (and) severe (cases) alike, more than anyone. We must not lose our democracy. We must not lose our police. And certainly - we must not lose the public's trust in them,” he said.

Israel’s Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev announced that they are planning to establish a government commission of inquiry into the allegations against the police.

For years, NSO Group has been at the center of numerous scandals. 

CBN News previously reported on an investigation published last July by an international alliance of media outlets that alleged the software was abused by governments to spy on journalists, political dissidents, and human rights activists. 

The internet watchdog Citizen Lab has identified alleged abuse of the spyware against journalists and human rights activists in countries ranging from Mexico to Saudi Arabia. The technology was also identified on the phones of US State Department employees in Uganda, British lawyers and a Polish senator who led the opposition’s 2019 parliamentary campaign.

In November, Citizen Lab said it found Pegasus software on the phones of six Palestinian human rights activists affiliated with groups that Israel has claimed are involved in terrorism.

The Biden administration banned the technology from American devices and blacklisted NSO Group for developing and supplying “spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers,” according to a US Commerce Department statement.

Apple and Facebook are currently suing the Israeli company for allegedly targeting users with its sophisticated spyware.

NSO Group has repeatedly denied all wrongdoing.

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