Feb 9, 2022 - World

Illegal domestic cyber spying allegations rattle Israel

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Photo: Menahem/AFP via Getty Images

A series of stories in an Israeli newspaper about alleged systematic illegal cyber spying by the police against innocent citizens has rattled the Israeli political system.

Why it matters: The police denied almost all of the press reports, but the public uproar could lead to the establishment of an independent national committee of inquiry headed by a Supreme Court judge.

Driving the news: A series of articles recently published by the daily financial newspaper Calcalist claimed the Israeli police intelligence department was using NSO’s Pegasus cyber spying software to hack citizens' cellphones without a warrant.

  • The police initially denied the allegations that it was acting illegally, but then revised its comment when further investigation found police analysts breached the terms of a warrant in a case involving a state witness in the ongoing corruption trial of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
  • When the police revised its comment, it tarnished the very little credibility it had and convinced many people the stories are accurate.

Details: According to the reports, there was a systematic procedure of hacking phones to gather intelligence on suspects. Sometimes it was pure “fishing” against people who were not even suspects.

  • Only after intelligence on alleged criminal activity came up would the police ask for a warrant, Calcalist reported.

The newspaper claimed the police used Pegasus not only against crime organizations or terrorists but also against mayors, political activists, Netanyahu's son and allies, and director generals of major government ministries.

  • On Monday, the newspaper published a list of more than two dozen people who were allegedly hacked by the police.
  • Calcalist published the stories without attributing them to any source and without giving any proof or documents to back them up. Other Israeli media outlets haven't been able to confirm the reports.
  • The police confirmed it was using Pegasus and other spying software but denied it was done illegally or without a warrant.

State of play: Netanyahu’s trial was supposed to resume this week but the judges decided to postpone it by several days until the attorney general determines whether there was any intentional illegal cyber spying against the state witness or other witnesses.

  • Netanyahu and his lawyers jumped on the case to support their claim that the investigation, indictment and trial against the former prime minister were part of a “witch hunt” by the “deep state."
  • The press reports rattled the Israeli political system and many politicians from left and right said they didn’t believe the police denials and demanded an independent investigation.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday was presented with an initial report by the police and the attorney general, which found only three of the names published on Monday were targets of cyber spying by the police and it was done with a warrant, officials in the Prime Minister’s Office said.

  • In a statement, Bennett said he decided to ask technical experts from the Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence agencies to do another independent examination of the logs of the police cyber spying system.

What’s next: Bennett's aides told me he wants to get the results of the intelligence agencies' examination before deciding whether to form an independent inquiry headed by a Supreme Court judge.

  • But senior Cabinet ministers told me that regardless of the conclusions of the examination, a committee of inquiry may need to be in order to avoid claims of political interference and to reestablish public confidence in the law enforcement agencies.
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