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NSO Scandal

Report: NSO spyware was used on Netanyahu's son and associates, activists, other political figures – and regular citizens

Israel launches investigation into police use of notorious Israeli software – which hacks and takes full control of targeted phones

Protestors demonstrate outside the offices of the Israeli cyber firm NSO Group in Herzliya near Tel Aviv, Israel July 25, 2021. (Photo: REUTERS/Nir Elias)

Caught in the crosshairs of several international investigations, the Israel-based NSO Group is deeply embroiled in a domestic scandal that has created a political earthquake today after a second bombshell report by the Israeli financial newspaper, Calcalist.

Israeli police are accused of using the notorious powerful spyware tool Pegasus on its nation’s own rank-and-file citizens in addition to politicians, businessmen, activists and journalists.

The Israeli financial newspaper, the Calcalist, on Monday issued the second part of a bombshell report on how the spyware was used domestically on civilians without a warrant and with full knowledge by police that it was illegal. It was also used to target senior government officials and the family and associates of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Among those allegedly hacked and tracked is Avner Netanyahu, the son of the former prime minister.

Made and sold by NSO, Pegasus is a spyware that is capable of remotely extracting information from targets’ cellphones including texts, browser history, call history and screenshots, in addition to other information. (See separate article here.)

The sophisticated Israeli-developed technology was used to tap the phones of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s associates, according to Channel 14 News. Channel 13 News reported that police surveilled a main state witness in Netanyahu’s trial without a court order. 

In a recording aired by Channel 12, police are heard allegedly discussing tapping a phone belonging to Shlomo Filber, a former Netanyahu ally turned state witness.

“It’s ‘like’ illegal to install the application,” a police officer says.

Israeli police did not deny the allegations. They insisted, however, that the materials extracted from Filber’s phone were not transferred to the prosecution in the case against Netanyahu.

“The Israeli police will cooperate fully and transparently,” a police spokesperson said regarding an investigation by the attorney general.

Netanyahu described the allegations as an “earthquake.” His lawyers have asked the court to “order the prosecutor to reveal all the elements of the probe obtained through Pegasus or other spyware.”

In light of the new revelations, Knesset Member Shlomo Karhi, from Netanyahu’s Likud party, said on social media that “a legal coup has taken place” in Israel.

“As I said many times in past, Israel is no longer a democracy. A legal coup was carried out against the leader of the right, using unlimited, financial and legal powers and resources,” he said.   

Earlier last week, Israel’s police force admitted that it used NSO’s Pegasus spyware to remotely hack phones of Israeli citizens, control them and extract information from them. 

The electronic surveillance was done secretly and without court supervision. It often targeted people who were not suspected of any crimes, among them two mayors, organizers of weekly protests against Netanyahu, an associate of a senior politician, activists campaigning against LGBT pride parades and employees in governmental firms.

West Bank settlers were also targeted as were several mayors, leaders of disability rights protests and participants in Ethiopian-Israeli protests against police.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the new attorney general is looking urgently into the matter.

"The reports about Pegasus, if they are true, are very serious," the prime minister said in a statement. "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.

Related articles:

What is the now infamous Israeli spyware firm NSO and what do you need to know?

Netanyahu responds to NSO scandal: ‘Dark day for Israel, as anti-terrorism software became a tool for spying on civilians’

Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.

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