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Israeli police have used spyware from the controversial Israeli company NSO Group to hack the cell phones of Israeli citizens without judicial supervision, including activists protesting against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli newspaper reported Tuesday.
The report in the prominent economic daily Calcalist offered the first accusations that Israel was targeting its own citizens with spyware made by the NSO. Israeli police say they use legally authorized cyber-surveillance tools to fight crime, but neither confirm nor deny the use of NSO technology.
The Israeli spyware company faces rising global controls and recent US sanctions for equipping regimes with powerful surveillance tools used to target human rights activists, journalists and politicians. Recently, Palestinian activists said their phones were infected with NSO spyware.
According to Tuesday’s news report, which did not name any sources, Israeli police acquired NSO’s Pegasus spyware in December 2013. It said police began using it after December 2015 without court orders, tapping calls and messages on cell phones from unsuspecting Israelis for crimes.
“Blatant and illegal violation of citizens’ privacy without court rulings. This is not how a democracy works,” tweeted Tomer Ganon, the journalist who reported the story.
The report said that in 2020, police hacked leaders of the Black Flag movement, who organized street protests throughout Israel and demanded the departure of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is accused of corruption.
Police also used it to spy on two mayors suspected of corruption, anti-LGBTQ activists to prevent potential attacks on pride parades and in homicide investigations, the newspaper reported.
In other cases, police hacked into citizens’ phones to gather information that could be used to pressure suspects during questioning, the report said.
Senior police officers are ordering a classified police cyber unit to carry out mobile phone surveillance, it said.
In a announcement, the Israeli police chief did not say whether the police used NSO spyware, but denied that the police had used cyber tools to target anti-Netanyahu activists, mayors and anti-LGBTQ activists, as alleged in the story.
According to the news report, Israel’s Minister of Public Security, Omer Bar Lev tweeted that the police would not eavesdrop or hack devices without the approval of a judge, but that he would seek more oversight.
“I intend to ensure that no corners are beaten with regard to the NSO and that everything is checked and approved by a judge in the most thorough manner,” the minister wrote.
That Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a human rights group promoting civil liberties in the country, called for a study.
“The police do not have the authority to track a telephone without a warrant, do not have the power to conduct a wiretapping investigation without a warrant, and can not search telephones without a warrant, and as such, the police certainly do not have the power to break in and seize the information “If the police have done that, it’s a crime,” the group said in a statement.
The NSO Group would not confirm that it sold spyware to the Israeli police, but said in a statement that it “sells its products under license and regulation to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent terrorism and crime under court orders and local laws of their countries. “
NSO reportedly blocks its government customers around the world from targeting phone numbers in Israel and the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance: the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But the company has not said publicly whether these six countries use NSO spyware to target their own citizens.
In mid-2021, a consortium International media reported a leaked list of about 50,000 phone numbers that governments allegedly sought to target using NSO’s Pegasus spyware, including 180 journalists in nearly two dozen countries, the slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancé and 14 heads of state, including French President Emmanuel Macron.
In late 2021, USA imposed sanctions against the NSO for “malicious cyber-activities.”