Sun. Jul 21st, 2024
•The decision reflected rising concerns about the use of the spyware in Israel, and could affect the corruption trial of former Prime Minister Netanyahu.
By Patrick Kingsley and Ronen Bergman +Gzero

Israel’s government has vowed to investigate new bombshell claims that the police used spyware to hack activists, civil servants, politicians, and other high-profile public figures, including witnesses in the ongoing corruption trial of former PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Pegasus software, developed by the Israeli firm NSO, has been the target of much scrutiny in recent months after it was revealed that several authoritarian governments bought the software – with the permission of Israel’s Defense Ministry – to crack down on dissidents and political opponents. (Pegasus has since been blacklisted in the US.) PM Naftali Bennett said Monday that the allegations were very serious and will be thoroughly investigated. Still, some Israelis fear that Netanyahu, who was ousted last year, might use the revelation to stall his corruption trial. Bibi’s son (also a hacking victim) and lawyers have already launched such a campaign.

The intensifying scrutiny of NSO Group, the Israeli spyware firm, has largely come from overseas as evidence mounted that authoritarian governments had used NSO products to spy on political opponents.

On Monday, the controversy came home as the Israeli government said it would investigate reports that the Israeli police had illegally used spyware against its citizens without a court order, including a key state witness in the corruption trial of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who succeeded Mr. Netanyahu last June, said the deputy attorney general was “looking quickly into” the claims, while the public security minister, Omer Barlev, who oversees the police, said he would open an official inquiry.

The efforts constitute the Israeli government’s most public expression of concern about NSO — once promoted by Israeli officials as a centerpiece of the Israeli tech industry — since the firm began attracting global scrutiny in 2016.

The allegations caused a brief delay in Mr. Netanyahu’s trial, after judges postponed hearings on Monday to allow prosecutors time to address the claims, amid calls by Mr. Netanyahu’s allies for the trial to be scrapped entirely.

The moves reflected rising concerns within Israel about the use of spyware made by NSO and other companies, which had been spared significant domestic scrutiny because it was not widely seen as a threat to Israeli citizens.

But on Monday NSO’s flagship spyware product, Pegasus, was being portrayed in Israel in much the same way it has been by critics abroad, as a threat to democracy.

Mr. Bennett said that “the reports about Pegasus, if they are true, are very serious.” Spyware products like Pegasus, he added, “are important tools in the fight against terrorism and severe crime, but they were not intended to be used in phishing campaigns targeting the Israeli public or officials — which is why we need to understand exactly what happened.”

Created to help governments track criminal and terrorist activity, Pegasus allows its users to monitor every aspect of a target’s phone — including their calls, messages, photos and video. In Israel it cannot legally be used against Israeli citizens without a judicial warrant.

Ayelet Shaked, one of several cabinet ministers to speak about the furor, described the allegations as “an earthquake.”

“I am shocked,” she added. “I cannot believe this is my country.”

The reactions followed a steady drip of recent allegations, principally from Calcalist, a business news daily, which claimed that the Israeli police had used Pegasus to extract information and data from the phones of Israeli activists, local politicians, businessmen, civil servants, and both critics and associates of Mr. Netanyahu. The reported targets included Mr. Netanyahu’s younger son, Avner.

The police were accused of either bypassing judicial oversight altogether, or of deploying spyware from NSO and other companies in a manner that exceeded the parameters set by judges.

The New York Times has not confirmed the new allegations.

In announcing the inquiry, Mr. Barlev said that any “wrongdoings, if there have been any,” occurred under previous governments.

The previous police commissioner, Roni Alsheich, has declined requests for comment since the allegations surfaced. The Israeli police said in a statement that they were “cooperating fully” with the investigation.

For years, NSO, under licenses from the Israeli Defense Ministry, has sold Pegasus to authoritarian governments who used it to hack the phones of activists, lawyers and politicians. Palestinian officials have also accused the Israeli government of using the spyware against Palestinian diplomats.

In November, the Biden administration blacklisted NSO, saying it knowingly supplied spyware that has been used by foreign governments to “maliciously target” the phones of dissidents, human rights activists, journalists and others.

The Times recently reported that Mr. Netanyahu’s government used the sale of the spyware to extract political favors from foreign countries, a claim Mr. Netanyahu denied. The Times also found that the U.S. government bought NSO spyware, before outlawing the company last year.

Several Israeli government agencies have purchased Pegasus and other NSO spyware products during the past decade, three Israeli officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. These products can be used against Israeli phone numbers, the officials said, and Israel’s internal security service, known as the Shin Bet, has used at least one NSO cyberweapon since 2015 in its counterterrorism work against Palestinians and some Israelis.

The Israeli police have used a version of Pegasus domestically since 2015, and in the last two years have hacked the phones of more than 100 targets a year, according to a former official and a person familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But NSO and its products have attracted little attention within Israel, and the question of their domestic misuse by the Israeli authorities had never been formally investigated until this year.

Previously, many Israelis saw NSO as a peripheral story about “an international Israeli company that got mixed up in a cyberweapon scandal,” said Nadav Eyal, a prominent Israeli commentator. “Now it has become something that Israelis are seeing has been used against them.”

The accusations were seized on by Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters and critics alike.

To his backers, the claims were an opportunity to undermine the legitimacy of his corruption trial, which helped prompt his loss of power last summer. Prosecutors accuse Mr. Netanyahu of giving businessmen political favors in exchange for gifts and positive news coverage — charges he has denied and portrayed as politically motivated.

Israel Katz, a lawmaker from Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, described the alleged hacking of the phone of a trial witness as “a blatant attempt to overthrow an incumbent prime minister by illegal means” and “a serious threat to democracy in the state of Israel.”

But Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents, including ministers in the current government, noted that the alleged abuses were said to have occurred during his tenure as prime minister, and under a police commissioner, Roni Alsheich, whom he had appointed.

Archival video broadcast widely on Monday showed Mr. Netanyahu addressing Mr. Alsheich in 2015 during the latter’s swearing-in ceremony. In the clip, Mr. Netanyahu described surveillance applications that can “serve as the eyes and ears of the Israel police,” and called on the police “to take an extra step in order to use the technologies for police work.”

He added: “I expect, Roni, that you will use these technologies.”

Mr. Netanyahu did not specify which technology he was referring to, and there has been no public evidence that he was aware that the police were using Pegasus.

Mr. Eyal, the commentator, said that for years Israeli soldiers had used military-grade cyber spyware “against Palestinians in order to maintain control,” and that it had always only been a matter of time before the same techniques would be used on Israelis themselves.

“Now,” he added, “it came back to roost within the Israeli society.”

Isabel Kershner, Myra Noveck and Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting.

Credits | GZero, NYT

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