SURVEILLANCEBroad, and Likely Unauthorized, Use of Pegasus Spyware by Israel's Police Shocks Israel

Published 7 February 2022

Since 2015, Israel’s police has employed the intrusive Pegasus spyware to spy on businesspeople, journalists and editors, senior managers of government ministries and agencies, leaders of protest movements, and more – and it appears that in many, if not most, of these cases, the spying was done without judicial approval or after judges were misled by the police about the nature of the monitoring technology. The Pegasus software has been used by authoritarian governments around the world to spy on political opponents, human rights activist, journalists – and in at least one case, to spy on U.S. diplomats. The U.S. has blacklisted the Israeli company NSO, Pegasus maker, and American companies are not allowed to sell their technology to NSO or do business with it

The sophisticated Pegasus spyware has been sold by Israeli software-maker NSO to about a dozen authoritarian and democracy-deficient regimes so they could spy on opposition politicians, human rights activists, journalists, civic society organizers, and foreign diplomats – including U.S. diplomats. Among the countries which paid Pegasus millions to buy the spyware: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United Arab Emirates.

In a journalistic revelation which has shaken Israel, it has now emerged that the Israeli police has used the software, in some cases without judicial warrant or after misleading judges about the capabilities of the spyware.

The scale of the use by the Israeli police of the Pegasus spyware, as reported by the  newspaper Calcalist, is staggering. Among the targets: businesspeople; senior banking officials; senior managers in government agencies – and more than a few criminals. It appears that the widespread use of the spyware without judicial review was started in 2015, during the tenure of former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh. It is understood that Alsheikh, who was a senior official of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service before being nominated by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lead the police, encouraged the adoption by the police of methods used by the Shin Bet in its campaign against Palestinian terrorists.

The partial list of Israeli citizens on whose phones the police surreptitiously installed the Pefgasis spyware includes a union boss; the founder of the supermarket chain Rami Levy; the mayors of Netanya, Holon, and Kiryat-Ata; the former directors general of the ministries of justice, transport, treasury, and communications; Avner Netanyahu, the son of Benjamin Netanyahu (his phone was also used by his mother, Sara Netanyahu); Iris Elovich, thewife of media magnate Shaul Elovich who is now on trial for bribing the former prime minister; two former press aides of Netanyahu; owners of the Walla TV channel, and many more.

According Calcalist , the cyber intelligence unit of the Israeli police systematically used Pegasus to spy on leaders of various protest movements which were visible on Israel’s streets during the last three years of Netanyahu’s reign: protesters who protested under the windows of the ex-prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem for more than a year; people with disabilities demanding better consideration in the budget; and Ethiopian Jews who protested their ill-treatment by the police.

Israeli settlers in the West Bank were also targeted, as were journalists and newspaper editors. They were targeted because the police was eager to find out who their sources were.

Palestinian human rights activists and lawyers were also under Pegasus surveillance.

Cabinet ministers on Monday called for the creation of an investigative commission with the power to compel testimony from witnesses. A thorough investigation of Pegasus-maker NSO and its activities is likely to prove problematic. NSO is a private company, but it has worked in close cooperation with government agencies. The Ministry of Defense authorizes the sale of Pegasus to other states, on a case-by-case basis — including states such as United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, India, Hungary, and more, which have used the spyware extensively against human rights activists, political opposition leaders, and journalists.

Morocco used the spyware to spy on French President Emmanuel Macron. Uganda used the spyware to spy on U.S. diplomats.