ISSN 2330-717X

Israeli Police Use NSO’s Pegasus Spyware To Hack Israelis Without Warrant – OpEd

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Calcalist published (English language report) a shocking story yesterday revealing that a secret police unit employed NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware against a diverse group of Israeli citizens.  

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It did so without a warrant or any form of judicial review, as is characteristic in these situations. 

It first purchased the technology in 2013 with a contract worth $700,000.  It undoubtedly paid millions more over the following eight years:

…The police purchased the software’s most basic form, and additional upgrades were added to it at costs of millions of shekels each year for the development and operation of the software.

Among those hacked were leaders of the Black Flag protest movement demanding the resignation of “Crime Minister,” Bibi Netanyahu. Also, a mayor was hacked in hope that access to his phone would reveal his participation in a bribery scheme. No legal action was ever taken against the municipal official. In some cases,  the police hacked phones not because they had evidence of wrongdoing,  but engaged in a fishing expedition, hoping they could dig up dirt via the phone break-in.

In essence,  Israeli citizens accused of no crime were spied upon by the national police. They included government employees and LGBT activists after the murder of young girl attending a Pride march, Though the police claim that all their activities are overseen and approved by the attorney general and police minister,  that seems doubtful at best.  So far, neither has admitted knowing of this activity,  let alone that they approved it.  But given that this is Israel, and government officials lie through their teeth when it’s convenient, it’s very possible that either they knew or that they looked the other way.

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One of the many ironies of this incident is that the police chief who made most extensive use of NGO’s spyware was Roni Alshkeikh. He had come to the police from the Shin Bet, where he’d been the deputy director.  In a separate case, the Shin Bet has recently been accused of hacking into the phones of the PA foreign minister to track its collaboration with the ICC’s war crimes investigation of Israel.  This of course raised barely a ripple inside Israel, because offenses concerning Palestinians, even ones perpetrated by Israel, arouse no interest.

Another irony: an Israeli TV news report found that cronies of Bibi Netanyahu, then under police investigation regarding corruption charges, had employed security consultants (i.e. spies) to target the police investigator and discover what they knew, and what approach they planned in questioning the PM.  Thus, while the police used Pegasus to target Israelis, the PM’s allies were using similar methods to spy on the police themselves. Ironies abound…

The use of NSO’s malware hammers another nail in the company’s coffin. It already has been placed on a US black list which prevents all US financial institutions from funding any corporate transactions. This also would discourage any potential US clients from purchasing its products. Though the company previously avowed that its spyware did not spy on Israelis, it released a new statement which did not deny it was used in the fashion alleged.  Instead, it used an old deflection, claiming it has no control over the ways in which clients use its products. This is of course a lie.  If NSO wished to oversee use of Pegasus it could build into the system a means of reviewing practices which violated terms of its contracts.   It chose not to do so in order to give itself plausible deniability in circumstances just like those it faces now.

The new element introduced in the current scandal is the use of the malware against Israelis, who are much less troubled by its use against foreign targets. Domestic use hits much closer to home and arouses outrage not seen previously.  But will the incident raise hackles sufficiently to force change in NSO’s methods?  Will it pressure the government to apply more stringent regulatory measures to limit its right to invade the privacy of Israeli citizens, not to mention the tens of thousands of foreign victims of its technology?  All this remains to be seen.

Police NSO Scandal in Context of Overall Deterioration of Israeli Rule of Law

While this scandal is in itself deeply disturbing, it is more important to place it in the context of the deterioration of the rule of law. As it is, the judiciary is a rubber stamp of the police and security apparatus.  They are incredibly pliant to demands made upon them.  They bend themselves into pretzels to accommodate every demand and request.  So why did the police decide to forego even the flimsiest oversight?  Probably because they knew that they could not get approval from judges for these expeditions.   Given the wide latitude given to the police by them, it’s astonishing to realize even they would not go that far. There are limits to their gullibility, as generous as they may normally be.

Further, this spy scandal reveals the corruption and lack of accountability at the heart of Israeli society and governance. Prime ministers arrange for corrupt billion-dollar submarine deals with tens of millions changing hands under the table (one of the hands belonging to a Netanyahu lawyer). Netanyahu is the second prime minister accused of such corruption (Ehud Olmert was convicted and served prison time).   If convicted, Netanyahu would be the second PM to serve prison time. The plea deal reported in Israeli media would offer the PM no prison time and a modest slap on the wrist.  While it would prohibit holding political office for seven years, it would not prevent him from pulling all the Likud strings behind the scenes. He would certainly maintain control of the Party through appointing his cronies to key leadership positions.

In other words, in every major sector of government from the security apparatus  (including the military) to the political echelon, senior officials do as they wish,  without regard to norms. They defy any precedents.  They defy rules or conventions established over decades of practice.   They invent ever newer ways of evading regulation or accountability.

In the words of digital technology–this is not a bug but a feature.

This article was published by Tikun Olam

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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