As the Black Flags protest against the Netanyahu government was gaining momentum in 2020, while the Corona pandemic was spreading without vaccines to stop it and lockdowns were the only way to keep Israeli citizens safe, the pressure was mounting on then Internal Security Minister Amir Ohana (Likud) to prevent anarchy in the streets while at the same time curb police violence against protesters from left to right. Now, according to a report by Tomer Ganon in Calcalist, it appears that one of the means to control the chaos was by using the Israeli Hi-Tech company NSO’s controversial spying App Pegasus.
According to Tuesday’s report (משטרת ישראל: פריצות לטלפון של אזרחים ללא פיקוח או בקרה), the highest echelon in Israel Police empowered officers to remotely plant the Pegasus app in the smartphones used by protesters which allowed police to control the infected devices, listen to phone conversations, and read emails. Reportedly, this was done against Israeli citizens who were not criminals or suspected of committing crimes, without a court order or judicial supervision.
The operation was designed and conducted by the Special Operations team in the police’s secret cyber SIGINT (signals intelligence). But according to Calcalist, protesters were not the only ones the police tracked down through the NSO app. Pegasus, which has become notorious in recent years after being used by dark regimes to track down dissidents, was used by the police SIGNET to dig up evidence of bribery on the mobile phone of a serving mayor, without a court order. In that particular case, the remote hacking into said mayor’s mobile phone yielded evidence of corruption. The evidence was later whitewashed to be presented as legitimate intelligence, and then an open investigation was launched – at which point the police asked for and received a court order to lawfully seize the infected cellphone.
Incidentally, since Israeli courts do not observe the doctrine of the fruit of the poisonous tree, there’s a good chance the tainted evidence would still be accepted by the relevant court.
But there was a lot more. NSO’s spyware has often also been used by the police to carry out phishing expeditions: attempts to recover information from a target’s mobile phone without prior knowledge or even suspicion of a crime. In at least one case, the Pegasus software was implanted in the cellphone of the associate of a senior politician, in an attempt to find evidence of corruption, Calcalist reported.
In other cases, the NSO spyware was planted on civilians’ phones to find and collect materials and information that were not necessarily related to any investigation or even suspicions, but simply so police investigators can use them in the future to exert pressure on the spying victim.
Following the murder of Shira Banki at the Pride Parade in Jerusalem in the summer of 2015, police investigators planted the Pegasus software in phones belonging to prominent right-wing activists known for their anti-gay positions, in anticipation that they, too, would become murderous fiends and kill teenage girls on the streets of Jerusalem. The Jewish Press reported over the past few years about police roundups of dozens of right-wing activists in Jerusalem ahead of the pride parades – with no grounds for the disregard of their civil rights other than opinions they may have written or said.
Even when they only said it on their phone in private conversation.
Homeland Security Minister Omer Barlev (Labor) on Tuesday morning answered questions about the Calcalist exposé and said he was convinced the police had acted legally.
“I also don’t like wiretapping civilians, neither by the police nor the Shin Bet,” Barlev told Ynet. “Every such thing in the State of Israel requires the approval of a judge. Just as there is approval for wiretapping a regular phone, the same thing holds in using the software. That’s what I was told, that’s what I understood, and I can tell you that I’m really going to make sure, in specific detail, that this is indeed the case,” he vowed.