Israel’s attorney general said Thursday it was launching an investigation into Israel Police’s use of phone surveillance technology following reports that investigators improperly tracked targets without authorization.
In a four-page letter, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said he had yet to find evidence to support claims by Israeli business daily Calcalist, which said police were monitoring leaders of a movement protest against then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, mayors and other citizens without court approval. But Mandelblit said many questions remained unanswered and he was forming a commission of inquiry headed by a senior deputy.
The specific cases cited by the newspaper “paint a very disturbing picture”, he said, but do not provide “sufficiently concrete information” to identify the alleged cases of abuse.
Mandelblit’s letter came hours after the Israeli police chief said he had ordered a full investigation into the newspaper’s allegations. In a report this week, Calcalist said police used NSO Group’s Pegasus hacking software to monitor some of Netanyahu’s political opponents, along with a range of other alleged abuses of the technology.
Police dismissed the report as inaccurate and said they were only operating in accordance with the law. But the post drew an outcry from lawmakers and sparked multiple investigations by various Israeli authorities into the allegations.
NSO Group does not identify its customers and says it does not know who is being targeted. The company says its products are intended for use against criminals and terrorists, and it does not control how its customers use the software. Israel, which regulates the company, did not say whether its own security forces use the spyware.
The Israeli spyware company has come under increasing scrutiny over its Pegasus software, which has been linked to spying on human rights activists, journalists and politicians around the world . In November, the US Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO, banning the company from using certain US technologies, saying its tools had been used to “carry out transnational repression”.
Announcing their investigation, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said that immediately after the report was released, police launched “a thorough internal investigation” which has yet to find any cases of illegal surveillance. He called on the newspaper to provide “concrete details that will allow us to inspect the alleged incidents”.
Tuesday’s Calcalist article did not name any of the people whose phones were allegedly hacked, nor did it cite current or former police, government or NSO sources. The report references eight alleged instances of the secret police signals intelligence unit employing Pegasus to monitor Israeli citizens, including hacking into the phones of protesters, mayors, a murder suspect and opponents of the Jerusalem Pride Parade, all without a court order or the oversight of a judge.
Shabtai said that “if it turns out that there were specific cases in which the regulations were violated, the police under my command will endeavor to improve and correct”, promising full transparency. At the same time, he defended the legal use of these technologies by the police. to fight crime.