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New Delhi: The police in Israel used the NSO Group’s controversial spyware, Pegasus, to control, hack and extract information from the mobile phones of several Israeli citizens without applying for a surveillance warrant, according to an investigation published by Israeli portal Calcalist.
The spyware, according to this investigation, was used against mayors, former government employees and leaders of protests against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The report states that the hacking and spying were carried out without a court’s supervision or the right legal permissions.
Several of those targeted were active in the protests against Netanyahu in 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, corruption allegations and an economic crisis. “…the heads of the political protests had no idea that Israel police had remotely planted NSO’s spyware in their phones, taking over their devices and having the ability to listen to all their calls and read all their messages,” Calcalist reports.
The NSO Group refused to confirm or deny these allegation, saying they “don’t comment on existing or potential clients”. In the past, the NSO Group has said several times that it only sells its spyware to “vetted governments”.
“We would like to clarify that the company doesn’t operate the systems held by its clients and isn’t involved in activating them. The company’s employees aren’t exposed to targets, aren’t exposed to information about them, and aren’t involved or exposed to our clients’ operational activity or any information relating to the investigations conducted by clients. The company sells its products under license and supervision to be used by national security and law enforcement agencies to prevent crime and terror in a legal manner and according to court orders and the local law of each country,” the company’s statement to Calcalist continued.
Israeli police, on the other hand, denied these allegations, saying that “all police activity in this field is done in accordance with the law, on the basis of court orders and strict work procedures”.
A number of people were spied on using Pegasus, the Calcalist investigation states. For instance:
“The Israeli company’s spyware, which has earned a notorious reputation over recent years after being used by oppressive regimes to spy on dissidents, was used, for example, by the police’s SIGINT unit in order to search for evidence of bribery in the cellphone of serving mayor, during the stage in which the investigation was still confidential. The remote hacking delivered in this instance evidence of criminal offenses. This evidence was later whitewashed as intelligence and was followed by an open investigation. At this stage, the evidence already known to police was legally seized with a search warrant provided by a judge.”
In July last year, a global consortium of publications including The Wire had revealed how Pegasus was being used across the globe to spy on private citizens – journalists, political opponents, rights activists and others.