Israel says police did not hack civilians without court approval

TEL AVIV — Israel’s Justice Ministry announced Monday that its week-long investigation found no evidence to suggest Israeli police systematically circumvented judicial oversight to hack into civilian phones.

The announcement contradicts recent Israeli media claims that rogue detectives used surveillance software made by NSO Group, a major Israeli spyware company blacklisted by the United States, to illegally hack dozens of activists, local politicians, business leaders and senior government officials, as well as critics and associates of Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister.

The Justice Ministry said police investigators never hacked 23 of the 26 people mentioned in recent investigations published by Calcalist, an Israeli business daily, and had obtained court approval to target the other three, only one of which was successfully infiltrated.

The flurry of allegations and rebuttals reflected how, after years of prolonged global scrutiny but little domestic criticism, NSO finally became the focus of debate and investigation inside Israel itself.

For more than a decade, NSO, with the permission and support of the Israeli government, has sold spyware to many foreign democracies, including the United States and Western Europe, as well as foreign authoritarian states that used it to hack into dissidents’ phones. , lawyers and politicians. It led to investigations of NSO by foreign news outlets and cyber watchdogs, contributed to the Biden administration’s decision to blacklist NSO last year, and helped draw attention world on a new kind of hacking software that allows governments to secretly access every component of an individual. call.

After a decade of relative anonymity inside Israel, NSO entered the national spotlight in January, after Calcalist alleged that NSO spyware had been used not only against foreigners, but illegally against Israelis. themselves.

The outlet’s investigation was hailed as a triumph of investigative journalism and sparked fierce debate about the state of Israeli democracy and the role of surveillance in Israeli society.

But the government’s counter-investigation proved almost as shocking, as it entirely refuted previous reports of Israeli police behavior.

Led by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari, the government investigation team included technology experts from the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, and Mossad, its foreign spy agency.

Team members reached their conclusions by accessing logs detailing how officers used the spyware that police were unable to edit, according to a former Israeli official familiar with the methods investigators, who could not be identified due to the sensitive legal issues involved. The investigators checked their work by seeing if it was possible to modify the logs themselves without leaving a digital trace, which they concluded was impossible.

Early leaks of the Justice Department’s findings have prompted some commentators to wonder if Calcalist was the victim of a hoax.

The Calcalist report was “one of the biggest media failures in Israel since the establishment of the state,” wrote Mordechai Gilat, a veteran investigative journalist and columnist for Haaretz, a rival newspaper. “What was published was not a journalistic investigation, nor a cousin of a journalistic investigation, nor even a distant relative,” Mr. Gilat added.

Responding to the government inquiry, Calcalist said its findings “demand serious consideration and reconsideration of the findings and allegations we have published.”

The outlet added, “we won’t hesitate to correct as much as necessary,” but also argued that the government investigation “completely validates Calcalist’s revelations that police are using super-invasive offensive spyware to infect civilian phones”.

In several articles and tweets published in recent days and weeks, the journalist who conducted the Calcalist investigations, Tomer Ganon, has repeatedly confirmed his findings.

But Mr Ganon said he would not be in a rush to provide further evidence and could not do so yet for fear of harming his sources.

I swore to my sources: I will protect you until the whole truth is revealed”, he wrote on Saturday. In another tweet, he wrote: “In this poker against the state, the cards will only be drawn when we decide it’s the right time.

Despite several attempts, The New York Times was unable to confirm the validity of Calcalist’s claims.

Mr Ganon briefly deleted his Twitter account in preparation for the Justice Department’s announcement, as reports began to leak about his findings. But Mr Ganon’s account resurfaced after conspiracy theorists speculated he was murdered by his political enemies. Skeptics of his reporting, however, acknowledge that there are broader questions Israel must answer regarding the surveillance of civilians, regardless of the veracity of Calcalist’s claims.

Some question whether the police should have the power to monitor civilians’ phones in the first place, with or without a court order. And legal experts worry that Israel’s wiretapping laws, written before the rise of the internet, are unfit to regulate modern phones capable of surfing the web and storing thousands of videos, images and files. emails.

Several branches of the Israeli government have purchased NSO spyware over the past decade, including the Shin Bet and Mossad. Under Netanyahu’s encouragement, Israel Police have been using spyware since 2015, infiltrating more than 200 targets in the past two years. And Mr. Netanyahu’s government has frequently authorized the sale of NSO products to foreign governments to curry international favor.

But although his government defended spyware during his tenure, Mr Netanyahu has since tried to use the backlash against NSO to discredit his own ongoing corruption trial.

In a recent twist, trial prosecutors admitted that police used spyware to infiltrate the phone of a key state witness in Netanyahu’s trial, for several hours longer than a court would allow. had authorized it. Prosecutors also said police also did not seek court permission to download a contact list saved on the witness’s phone.

The confessions gave new impetus to attempts by Netanyahu’s supporters and lawyers to force a stay or failure of his trial.

“We have a new Watergate in Israel,” Yair Netanyahu, the former prime minister’s son, told Newsmax on Sunday. “Corrupt police officers and corrupt judicial bureaucrats from the prosecution service illegally spied on my father.”

Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv and Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem.

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