TEL AVIV – Israel’s Ministry of Justice announced on Monday that its week-long investigation found no evidence that Israeli police systematically bypassed judicial scrutiny to hack phones. of the common people.
Contradictory Notice Recent statements in the Israeli news media that rogue spies used surveillance software from NSO Group, a major US blacklisted Israeli spyware company, to illegally attack dozens of activists, political Local politicians, business executives and senior civil servants, as well as critics and associates of Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister.
The Justice Department said police investigators never broke into 23 of the 26 people mentioned in recent investigations published by Calcalist, an Israeli business daily, and approved by the court. project to target the remaining three, only one of which was successfully infiltrated.
The series of accusations and rebuttals reflect that, after years of prolonged global surveillance but little domestic criticism, the NSO has finally become the focus of debate and investigation within 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 in Western Europe, as well as to independent countries. foreigners, who used it to hack the phones of dissidents. , lawyer and politician. That led to investigations into NSOs by foreign news outlets and cyber watchdogs, which contributed to the Biden administration’s blacklisting of NSOs last year, and helped attract international awareness to a new type of hacking software that gives governments covert access to every component of individual phones.
After a decade of relative anonymity in Israel, NSO made headlines domestically in January, after Calcalist alleges that NSO spyware was used not only against foreigners but also against foreigners. illegally against the Israelis themselves.
The agency’s investigation was hailed as a success by investigative journalism and stirred up a fierce debate about the state of Israeli democracy and the role of surveillance in Israeli society.
But the government’s rebuttal was almost shocking, as it completely refuted previous reports of Israeli police conduct.
Led by deputy attorney general, Amit Marari, the government’s investigation team included technology experts from the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, and the Mossad, its foreign spy agency.
Members of the group came to their conclusions by accessing logs detailing how officers used spyware and that the police could not be tampered with, according to a former Israeli official familiar with the methods. method of the investigator, who could not be identified because it was too sensitive. related legal issues. The investigators tested their work by seeing if it was possible to alter the records themselves without leaving a digital trace, which they concluded was impossible.
Leaks before the Justice Department’s findings have led some commentators to question whether Calcalist was the victim of a hoax.
The Calcalist report is “one of the biggest media failures in Israel since the founding of the state,” wrote Mordechai Gilat, a veteran investigative reporter and columnist for Haaretz’s rival newspaper. “What is published is not a press investigation, nor is it a cousin of a journalistic investigation, even distant relatives,” Mr. Gilat added.
Responding to the government investigation, Calcalist said that its conclusion “requires serious consideration and re-examination of the findings and allegations that we have published.”
The agency added, “we will not hesitate to make as many repairs as necessary,” but also asserted that the government investigation “completely corroborates the Calcalist disclosures, under which police used super-intrusive attack spyware to infect civilians’ phones”.
In a number of articles and tweets published in recent days and weeks, the journalist leading the Calcalist investigation, Tomer Ganon, has consistently stood by his findings.
But Mr Ganon said he would not rush to provide more evidence and was unable to do so yet for fear of damaging his sources.
“I swore to my sources: I will protect you until all the truth is revealed,” he wrote Saturday. In another tweet, he wrote: “In this against-bang poker, cards will only be drawn when we decide it’s the right time.”
Despite many efforts, The New York Times was unable to confirm that there was any validity to Calcalist’s allegations.
Mr. Ganon quickly deleted his Twitter account following the Justice Department announcement, when news began to leak about the justice department’s conclusions. But Mr Ganon’s account resurfaced after conspiracy theorists theorized that he was assassinated by his political enemies. Skeptics of his report, however, admit that there are more questions for Israel to answer about surveillance of civilians, regardless of the veracity of Calcalist’s allegations.
Some questioned whether the police should have had the power to monitor civilians’ phones in the first place, with or without a court order. And legal experts fear that Israel’s wiretapping laws, enacted before the Internet emerged, are not suitable for regulating modern phones that can surf the web and store thousands of videos, photos and emails.
Several Israeli government weapons have purchased NSO spyware over the past decade, including the Shin Bet and Mossad. At the encouragement of Mr. Netanyahu, the Israeli police been using spyware since 2015, penetrated more than 200 targets in the past two years. And Mr. Netanyahu’s government regularly authorizes the sale of NSO products to foreign governments won international support.
But despite his government’s support of spyware while in office, Mr. Netanyahu has since attempted to use the backlash against the NSO to discredit his ongoing corruption trial. himself.
In a recent development, trial prosecutors admitted that police used spyware to break into the phone of a key state witness during Mr. Netanyahu’s trial, much longer. several hours longer than the time allowed by the court. Prosecutors also said police also did not seek court approval to download contact lists saved to witnesses’ phones.
These admissions have given new impetus to efforts by Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters and lawyers to force the suspension or annulment of his trial.
“We have a new Watergate in Israel,” Yair Netanyahu, son of the former prime minister, told Newsmax on Sunday. “The corrupt police and judicial officials in the state prosecution have illegally tracked down my father.”
Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv and Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/21/world/middleeast/israel-nso-spyware-investigation.html Israel says police do not attack civilians without court approval