Police chief on NSO: If there was abuse of power, we’ll fix it

Shabtai tries to shift focus of the NSO probe by saying Pegasus was used prior to his term.

Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai and head of Jerusalem police district Doron Turgeman meet with press near the Damascus gate, following the recent days of clashes between jewish right-wing extremists and Palestinians, April 24, 2021 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai and head of Jerusalem police district Doron Turgeman meet with press near the Damascus gate, following the recent days of clashes between jewish right-wing extremists and Palestinians, April 24, 2021
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

If there were cases in which the Israel Police abused its power by invading people’s cellphones with NSO Group spyware, the police will fix it, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said on Thursday.

Shabtai was responding to continued reports in the media of how the police used NSO’s Pegasus spyware to hack into citizens’ phones and invade their privacy in an effort to collect incriminatory information.

Shabtai tried to shift the focus of the probe into how the police used NSO or similar spyware by saying that if anything, it was done prior to his term.

“If we discover individual cases when regulations were violated, the police under my command will work to fix the situation with transparency and in cooperation with all relevant authorities,” Shabtai said. “We will not allow a violation of any law, if one is found.”

Shabtai took the helm of the Israel Police in December 2020, but many of the reports in Calcalist from earlier this week about the police illegally using cellphone-hacking technology to solve regular crimes without court orders took place during the eras of his predecessors: Roni Alsheich from 2015-2018, and Moti Cohen from 2019-2020.

Although former police chief Yohanan Danino (2011-2015) has come out loudly against the actions reported by Calcalist, Alsheich and Cohen have been noticeably silent.

Shabtai’s latest statement confirmed that an internal review has still not found any cellphone hacking actions taken without a court order during his term.

 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 (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 (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

However, he gave more explicit hints that such activities might have occurred in some rare instances prior to his term; that if rules were violated there would be consequences; and that the police probe of the issue was shifting to those earlier years.

Shabtai said the police use such technology to save lives and to prevent violent crimes or online-related pedophilia. He said that as long as court orders are sought, these tools have and will save lives and prevent dangerous crime.

Some of the new details that emerged on Thursday from additional Calcalist reports included the police allegedly using NSO’s Pegasus program to spy on the cellphone of an activist. His name is kept anonymous in the report, but other reports have said that the police hacked the cellphones of protesters against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and anti-gay activists.

The report said the police designated him as a danger to Israeli democracy as a reason for authorizing the Israel Police Cyber Unit to hack his cellphone without a court order.

The hacking revealed that the married activist was using the platform “Grindr” to correspond with and meet gay men.

A notation was made in the activist’s file that this information could be “used as a bargaining trip” in any future criminal investigation, and that the actions of the cyber unit could be camouflaged under a gag order for intelligence collection through “technological means.”

The Israel Police Investigations Unit then went to court to get an after-the-fact approval for eavesdropping, even though those police investigators did not know what the Israel Police Cyber Unit had done to provide them the basis for seeking the court order.

The cyber unit then continued to read and follow the activist’s messages with persons he was interacting with using Grindr to potentially track him and record his activities.

The police responded to the report stating they were “not familiar” with the specific case, and accused Calcalist of withholding details that would help the police better probe and understand the specific allegations.

Two anti-Netanyahu activists spoke to Channel 12 and made claims about strange things happening to their cell phones, including applications being removed and added without their knowledge and changes to the cell phones language settings.

Beyond those claims of suspicious and unexplained changes, the activists did not have direct forensic proof linked to the Police as opposed to some potential third-party actor.

Channel 12 also reported that as of Thursday night Police officials said all of their reviews of NSO files had not revealed irregularities.