In recent NSO affair, who will public believe: police or press? - analysis

The solution to an abuse of technology is not to ban the technology, but to effectively regulate it.  

 A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

If the allegations that appeared in Tuesday’s bombshell Calcalist report that the police used NSO’s Pegasus spyware to tap into the phones of Israelis without receiving approval from the courts are true, then it is shocking.

If true, this smacks of Big Brother: the police, on its own volition, using super-powerful technology to hack into the phones of unsuspecting citizens – some of whom are not suspected of any concrete crime – controlling those phones and extracting text, pictures, and phone conversations.

If true.

The police, obviously, vehemently denied the un-sourced report that did, nevertheless, include specifics that gave the reader a sense that the information came from knowledgeable sources.

Police Insp.-Gen. Kobi Shabtai said that some of the specifics in the story were flat out wrong. “Everything is done with the necessary legal authorization,” he said. “The Israeli police does not use its advanced technological capabilities against innocent citizens or protesters.”

ISRAELI CYBER firm NSO Group’s exhibition stand is seen at ISDEF 2019, an international defense and homeland security expo held in Tel Aviv in 2019. (credit: KEREN MANOR)ISRAELI CYBER firm NSO Group’s exhibition stand is seen at ISDEF 2019, an international defense and homeland security expo held in Tel Aviv in 2019. (credit: KEREN MANOR)

One of the claims in the story was that the spyware was used against leaders of the anti-Netanyahu protests.

Police investigator Ziv Sagiv, head of the investigations division, said on Kan Bet on Wednesday that the police does bug phones, though only with a court order, but does not hack into phones or extract information from them. He would not discuss what technology is used.

So who to believe: Calcalist or Shabtai, the media or the police?

And that is no easy question to answer, especially since the public lacks trust in both institutions. In the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual survey in 2021 on the degree to which the public trusts various state institutions, neither the police nor the media fared well.

Only 33.5% of the public said they trusted the police, placing it in fourth place among the eight institutions listed. Even worse, only 25% of the public said they trusted the media, placing it in sixth place overall.

A serious trust deficit has emerged in recent years regarding the state’s institutions, and it is a serious problem because the public does not know whom to believe. Here you have a classic case of “he said, she said,” with the public having very little faith in the word of either “him or her,” the police or the media.

So what to do?

“There is a huge difference between the claims in the Calcalist article and the police statements,” Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar told the Knesset’s Law Committee on Wednesday. “It’s good that the state comptroller, who is an independent body, took upon himself to examine the issue. And according to what I’ve been told, the attorney-general will also investigate.”

The decisions by the state comptroller to investigate is the right place to start. In a 2016 Central Bureau of Statistics report, the state comptroller was the third-most trusted government institution in the state, following the IDF and the local municipalities, though the public faith in this body has also waned in recent years since that office has gone through significant personnel changes.

In the wake of the Calcalist report, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman announced he would expand his office’s ongoing investigation into the use of surveillance technology to include the Pegasus allegations, and that the use of this technology raises questions about the balance between the efficacy of the tools and the damage they do to privacy rights.

This is welcome, as an independent body must investigate allegations that, if true, constitute a serious violation of civil rights.

One natural response to this type of abuse of power, if true, is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The world saw an example of this in the US in recent years in response to police abuse and the killing by a police officer of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. As a result of these incidents, a movement to defund the police gained momentum and had some success, leading to a spike in violent crimes in some major US cities. Anger at the police led to defunding police that led to an increase in crime.

Likewise, the response of some to the Calcalist report will be to keep the police from using or even obtaining advanced technological surveillance tools, because they might abuse them.

But that is not the answer. The solution to an abuse of technology is not to ban the technology, but to effectively regulate it.

The same technology that may have been abused in the cases spelled out in the Calcalist story was certainly used in some other cases to prevent crimes. A tool is not good or bad per se, the question is how it is put to use. It could be put to use for beneficial purposes, or it could be misused. Fight the misuse, but don’t issue a blanket prohibition of the tool itself.

Cars, for instance, kill people. But because cars can kill does not mean they should be banned. Rather, the way they are driven is regulated. The same should be the case here. The spyware allegedly used by the police – NSO’s Pegasus – is extremely powerful. It can be used for good ends, or for bad ones.

It is clear that the country’s Protection of Privacy law, first drawn up in 1981, needs to be updated to protect against the misuse and abuse of the new technology. But that doesn’t mean that the new technology should be banned. Rather, the state needs to better regulate matters to ensure that it is not abused.