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Israeli Leaders Outraged Over Allegations that Police Used Powerful Spyware Against Citizens

FILE - 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/Sebastian Scheiner, File)
FILE - 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/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

JERUSALEM, Israel – Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday said he is opening an investigation into accusations that police used powerful spyware technology against Israeli citizens, including those who were not suspected of crimes, without oversight from a court or a judge.

Israeli lawmakers were outraged this week after the Hebrew-language business newspaper Calcalist reported that in 2020, Israeli police used NSO Group’s controversial “Pegasus” spyware to “remotely hack phones of Israeli citizens, control them and extract information from them.”

The Israeli 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 police targets reportedly included leaders of political protests against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, two mayors, former government employees, an associate of a senior politician, and activists campaigning against gay pride parades. The report said the police hacked into these phones by exploiting a legal loophole and without a warrant or any supervision from a court or judge.

In some instances, police allegedly hacked into citizens’ phones without knowing in advance if they had even committed a crime. They also reportedly used the spyware to extract information unrelated to any existing investigation, to use it in the future to pressure suspects in an interrogation.

In other cases, police used the surveillance technology to find incriminating information and then claimed they could not reveal the source of the information because it risked exposing intelligence secrets.

Calcalist did not name any of the individuals who were allegedly hacked and did not cite current or formal officials from the government, police or NSO corroborating the claims.

Israel Police denied the accusations in a statement to the paper, saying they are “untrue” and that officers operate according to law. In a separate statement, Israel Police confirmed that it does use “technological tools from external companies,” but that it is not used against innocent civilians.

NSO Group said it does not identify its clients, adding that “the company does not operate the system once sold to its governmental customers and it is not involved in any way in the system’s operation.”

The Calcalist report unified Israeli lawmakers from the political right, left and center who called for an immediate probe into the claims. 

Cabinet Minister Karine Elharrar told Israel's Army Radio that such surveillance “was something that a democratic country cannot allow.”

Opposition lawmaker Yuval Steinitz said that the alleged hacking of citizens by law enforcement without judicial oversight is wrong and should be investigated.

Government comptroller Matanyahu Englman said Tuesday he would investigate the allegations.

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.

NSO Group says its products are intended to help to fight criminals and terrorists, and that it does not control how its clients use the software. 

Israel regulates the company and has not said whether its own security forces use the spyware.

The US 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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