Israel launches inquiry into police hacking claims

Mobile phone in front of NSO building (file photo)

Israel’s government will set up a commission of inquiry to examine reports the police used spyware made by NSO Group to hack the phones of Israeli public figures without authorization.

Officials, protesters, journalists and a son of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were among those targeted, the local newspaper Calcalist said. A witness in Mr Netanyahu’s corruption trial was also allegedly monitored.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the reports, if true, were “very serious”. NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm, has faced widespread allegations that its hacking software Pegasus has been sold to and misused by authoritarian governments across the world.

The company has insisted that it does not operate the software once it is sold to clients and has previously stated that it could not be used to track Israeli citizens. It has not commented on the latest development.

Pegasus infects phones, allowing operators to extract messages, photos and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones and cameras.

“This tool (Pegasus) and similar tools 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,” Mr Bennett said in a statement.

The prime minister said he would discuss the matter with the newly appointed Attorney General, Gali Baharav-Miara, and that they would “not leave the public without answers”.

President Isaac Herzog also expressed concern. “We must not lose our democracy. We must not lose our police. And we must certainly not lose public trust in them. This requires an in-depth and thorough investigation,” he said.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev said the commission of inquiry would be headed by a retired judge and would “conduct an in-depth investigation into violations of civil rights and privacy during the years in question”. In a report published on Monday, Calcalist said police hacked the phones of dozens of Israeli citizens.

The surveillance was conducted by the force’s cyber-SIGINT unit to “phish for intelligence even before any investigation had been opened against the targets, and without judicial warrants”, according to the Israeli business daily. The list of targets allegedly included: The director-generals of the ministries of transport, finance and justice, the leaders of protests organised by disability rights groups and Israelis of Ethiopian descent, the mayors of Netanya, Mevaseret Zion, Kiryat Ata and Holon.

Witnesses and some of those questioned as part of an investigation into Case 4,000, which concerns allegations of corruption against Mr Netanyahu and Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Israel’s biggest telecommunications company Bezeq. The CEO of the Walla news website, which was previously owned by Bezeq, as well as Walla’s former editor-in-chief and other Walla journalists. Mr Netanyahu’s son Avner and two of the former prime minister’s media advisers. A supermarket magnate and the chairman of the workers’ union at Israel Aerospace Industries

According to Calcalist, the hacking and collecting of information from their phones took place while the police force was led by Roni Alsheikh, who was commissioner between 2015 and 2018. Mr Netanyahu, who was ousted as prime minister last June, told parliament that it was a “dark day for Israeli democracy”. He accused the police of using the “most aggressive tools in the world” to spy on Israelis illegally, and called for an independent inquiry.

Last week, Israeli media reported that police hacked the phone of Shlomo Filber, a former director general of the communications ministry and key witness in the ongoing trial of Mr Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection with Case 4,000 and two other cases. The reports did not mention whether Pegasus was used.

Mr Netanyahu, who along with Mr Elovitch denies any wrongdoing, described those reports at the time as “an earthquake”. Following a request from his lawyers on Monday, the Jerusalem District Court postponed the next session of his trial to allow prosecutors to answer questions about the alleged hacking. Lead prosecutor Ronit Tirosh was quoted by the newspaper Haaretz as saying that she was “confident the documents we have were gathered according to legal and legitimate orders”.

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