Israel police chief orders probe into NSO spyware claims

Police commissioner says an internal investigation of police force using NSO spyware did not yield cases of unlawful surveillance.

An iPhone is held up in front of a building with the NSO group logo on it
An Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group [File: Jack Guez/AFP]

Israel’s police chief says he has ordered an extensive investigation into a newspaper’s claims that the police force had used controversial Israeli spyware to hack the phones of protesters, mayors and other citizens under investigation without proper authorisation.

Earlier this week, a Hebrew-language business paper published an investigative report claiming that the police had used the NSO Group’s Pegasus hacking software to surveil leaders of a protest movement against then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as a raft of other alleged misuses of the technology.

The police have dismissed the report as inaccurate and said they operate only according to the law, but the publication drew outcry from legislators and prompted multiple investigations by various Israeli authorities into the allegations. The NSO Group said it does not identify its clients.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said on Thursday that following the report’s publication, police had immediately launched “a thorough internal investigation” that has yet to find any instances of unlawful surveillance. He called on the paper to provide “concrete details that will allow us to inspect the alleged incidents”.

The NSO Group, an Israeli spyware company, has faced mounting scrutiny over its Pegasus software, which has been linked to snooping on human rights activists, journalists and politicians across the globe. In November, the United States Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO Group, barring the company from using certain US technologies, saying its tools had been used to “conduct transnational repression”.

Amid years of criticism, NSO Group has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, arguing that its tools are meant to track criminals and “terrorists”. It also dismissed the findings of the investigation into Pegasus earlier this year, which was based on a serious data leak, as “uncorroborated theories”.

Governments accused of using the spyware, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have also rejected the allegations.

Parliamentary investigation

Tuesday’s Calcalist article did not name any of the people whose phones were allegedly hacked, nor did it cite any current or former sources in the police, government or NSO.

The report referred to eight alleged examples of the police’s secretive signal intelligence unit employing Pegasus to surveil Israeli citizens, including hacking phones of protesters, mayors, a murder suspect and opponents of the Jerusalem Pride Parade, all without a court order or a judge’s oversight.

The company says it does not control how its clients use the software. Israel, which regulates the company, has not said whether its security forces use the spyware.

Earlier this week, Israeli legislators called for a parliamentary investigation into the allegations, and the attorney general and state comptroller said they were looking into the claims of misuse.

Shabtai said “if it turns out that there were specific instances in which regulations were violated, the police under my command will work to improve and correct”, pledging full transparency. At the same time, he defended the police’s lawful use of such technologies to combat crime.

NSO has also faced either legal action or criticism from Microsoft Corp, Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc, Google parent Alphabet Inc, and Cisco Systems Inc.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies