Israeli police have been using the controversial Pegasus spyware – a cell phone hacking system – to spy on the nation’s citizens, the business news site Calcalist reported on Tuesday.
And worse, the spying operations targeted law-abiding Israeli civilians and took place without any oversight by the judicial system.
The targets of the controversial spying included leaders of the regular protests against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, two mayors, government employees and anti-LGBT activists.
The Israel Police acquired the Pegasus spyware in 2013 and it became operational in 2015 under the leadership of Roni Alsheikh, the former general commissioner of the Israel Police, who previously served as the deputy head of the Israel Internal Security Service, Shin Bet.
Pegasus was developed by an Israeli IT surveillance company, NSO. This means that Israeli police had been spying on its citizens – without judicial oversight – for at least six years by using a legal loophole: Pegasus technology was not included in existing laws since they were passed before the technology was invented.
In one of the most controversial incidents, the Israel Police reportedly remotely planted the Pegasus spyware inside the phones of the leaders behind the anti-Netanyahu protests without their consent or knowledge. This enabled the police to listen to the individuals’ private phone conversations and to read their private messages.
The spying scandal is linked to a wider international scandal involving governments worldwide who used the Pegasus spyware to spy on more than 1,000 individuals in 50 different countries, including political dissidents, journalists, activists, business executives and politicians. Morocco, for example, spied on critics of its regime and on French news outlets that reported on human rights abuses in the country.
In early November, U.S. authorities decided to blacklist the NSO group alongside several other companies from Israel, Russia and Singapore.
At the time, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo explained the dangers of governments abusing the spyware.
“These tools have also enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists and activists outside of their sovereign borders to silence dissent. Such practices threaten the rules-based international order,” Raimondo said.
In theory, Israel’s legal system requires the approval of legal courts to take invasive measures, such as spying on citizens. However, in practice the police spying scandal, coupled with a new law that enables police officers to enter private homes without a warrant, signals a legal system in crisis, inviting serious infringements on fundamental human rights.
It is not the first time that Israeli authorities find themselves in the midst of allegations of power abuse. Approximately 400,000 Israelis were wrongly quarantined in 2020, because of Shin Bet’s controversial contact tracing of Israeli citizens at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cellphone tracking is usually associated with surveillance of terrorist suspects.
“The idea of a government watching its own citizens – this closely should ring the alarm. This is against the foundations of democracy. You can’t just give up on democracy during a crisis,” Maya Fried, a spokeswoman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said last January about COVID tracking.
Following the shocking revelations Tuesday by the Calcalist, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said that he would open an investigation into the claims. The use of such technological tracking “raises questions of balance between their usefulness and the violation of the right to privacy and other freedoms,” Englman said. He also underlined that the State Comptroller's office places “special emphasis on the protection of Israeli citizens' privacy.”
Police Chief Kobi Shabtai denied that Pegasus was used to spy on anti-Netanyahu protesters, mayors and anti-LGBT activists, but did not deny that the police used the spyware against Israeli citizens.
He said that “everything was done with the appropriate warrants and oversight.”
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.