Israeli lawmakers outraged after claiming police used NSO spyware

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli lawmakers on Tuesday called for a parliamentary inquiry into alleged police use of sophisticated spyware on Israeli citizens, including protesters opposing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following allegations a newspaper article about surveillance.

The Hebrew-language business newspaper Calcalist reported that in 2020, police used the NSO Pegasus spyware to monitor leaders of protests against Netanyahu, who was then prime minister. He said police also hacked into the phones of two sitting mayors suspected of corruption and numerous other Israeli citizens, all without a court order or a judge’s oversight.

Israeli police denied the allegations, saying they were acting within the law, and NSO Group said it did not identify its customers.

Sophisticated spyware made by the Israeli company has been linked to eavesdropping on human rights activists, journalists and politicians from Saudi Arabia to Mexico. The United States has barred the group from accessing American technology, saying its products have been used by repressive regimes.

The company says its products are intended for use against criminals and terrorists, and it does not control how its customers use the software. Israel, which regulates the company, did not say whether its own security forces use the spyware.

The report – which cites no current or official government, police or NSO official corroborating the newspaper’s claims – refers to eight alleged instances of the secret police transmit intelligence unit employing Pegasus to monitor Israeli citizens, including hacking into the phones of a murder suspect and opponents. of the Jerusalem Pride Parade. The report does not name any of the people whose phones were allegedly hacked by the police.

“In all cases mentioned in the article, and in other cases, the use of Pegasus was made at the sole discretion of senior police officers,” the report said. “The significance is that with Pegasus, the police can effectively hack without asking a court, without a search or entry warrant, without surveillance, all cell phones.”

The report sparked an uproar across Israel’s political spectrum, briefly uniting everyone from Jewish ultra-nationalists to opposition Arab lawmakers in common outrage.

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

Opposition lawmaker Yuval Steinitz said the surveillance of citizens by law enforcement without judicial oversight is improper and if the allegations are correct, they should be investigated.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, whose department oversees the police, tweeted that he would verify that the police had received explicit permission from a judge to use the spyware.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party has called on the Knesset speaker to launch a parliamentary inquiry. Merav Ben Ari, an Israeli lawmaker who heads the Knesset’s internal security committee, said the panel would hold a hearing on the report’s claims.

The Israel Police released a statement after the report was published, saying that “there is no truth to the claims raised in the article” and that “all police operations in this area are in accordance with the law. , in accordance with court orders and meticulous protocols”.

Amir Ohana, who was public security minister during the protests, said he had no knowledge of the reported surveillance.

The Black Flags protest movement, whose leaders have reportedly been watched in weekly demonstrations in recent years calling for Netanyahu to step down, has called on police to release the names of people whose phones were hacked. Spokesperson Roee Neuman said protest leaders didn’t hear about the digital surveillance until after the report was released.

The Pegasus software surreptitiously grants full access to a person’s cell phone, including real-time communications.

Tuesday’s report was the latest blow to the company, which has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism for the use of its software by repressive governments.

NSO’s software has repeatedly been blamed for cellphone surveillance of activists, dissidents and journalists. Last month, internet watchdog Citizen Lab said dozens of journalists and human rights defenders in El Salvador had had their cellphones repeatedly hacked with sophisticated spyware over the past year and a half.

In November, Citizen Lab said it identified Pegasus software on the phones of six Palestinian human rights activists affiliated with groups Israel says are involved in terrorism.

Citizen Lab has been identifying Pegasus victims since 2015, when abuses of the spyware against journalists and human rights activists were uncovered in Mexico and autocratic countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. Dozens of cases have since been uncovered, including that of a dozen US State Department employees in Uganda, British lawyers and a Polish senator who led the opposition parliamentary campaign in 2019.

NSO Group said it could neither confirm nor deny specific customers, adding that “the company does not operate the system once sold to its government customers and is in no way involved in the operation of the system”.

“NSO sells its licensed and regulated products to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent terrorism and crime under court orders and local laws in their countries,” the company said.

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