Israel to probe alleged use of Pegasus to spy on its citizens

A newspaper report alleged the software was used on citizens at the forefront of protests against Netanyahu last year.

A view of the Israeli cyber company NSO Group branch in the Arava Desert in Sapir, Israel.
A view of the Israeli NSO Group's branch in the Arava Desert in Sapir, Israel [Amir Levy/Getty Images]

Israel’s justice ministry has pledged a full investigation into allegations that the controversial Pegasus spyware was used on Israeli citizens, including people who led protests against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli police firmly denied a report by the business daily Calcalist that Pegasus, a surveillance product made by the Israeli firm NSO, was used on citizens at the forefront of last year’s protests against Netanyahu, as well as on journalists and dissidents worldwide.

Israel’s Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said at a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday that there was an “unbridgeable gap” between the report and the police’s statements, and that the attorney general was also investigating the claims made in the article.

On Tuesday, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said he would expand his ongoing investigation into law enforcement’s use of surveillance technology to include the latest Pegasus allegations.

The inquiry will probe “the balance” between the “usefulness” of surveillance tools in investigations and “violations of the right to privacy”, Englman said.

Public Security Minister Omar Barlev, a Netanyahu critic who took office as part of a new government that removed the PM in June last year, said most of the claims were “simply erroneous”.

“There was no surveillance, no hacking of any phone of any protester in any protest,” Barlev said. “It’s against the law.”

Israeli security forces have wide leeway to conduct surveillance within the country with judicial approval.

Barlev added that the attorney general had asked the police on Tuesday to respond formally to the examples mentioned in the article.

Pegasus, which can turn a mobile phone into a pocket spying device, has sparked global controversy following revelations last year that it was used to spy on journalists and dissidents worldwide.

Israel’s defence ministry, which must approve all exports of Israeli-made defence industry products, has also opened an investigation into sales of Pegasus overseas.

The US has barred the NSO group from American technology, saying its products have been used by repressive regimes.

NSO has responded to the allegations saying it could not confirm or deny any existing or potential customers. It said it does not operate the system once sold to its governmental customers nor is it involved in any way in the system’s operation.

In December last year, the company was exploring options that include shutting its controversial Pegasus unit and selling the entire company, according to people familiar with the matter.

Apple has sued NSO, seeking to bar the spyware firm from using its products and services, and said it would start notifying users targeted by state-sponsored hacking.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies