Israel Police, FBI officials call for more aggressive crime tech laws

There has been heavy criticism of the police’s use of one of NSO Group’s tools to hack suspects' cell phones and routinely collect data beyond what court orders stipulate.

 Chief of police Kobi Shabtai, Minister of Public Security Omer Bar Lev and Israeli police officers at the Israel Police Independence Day ceremony at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem May 1, 2022. (photo credit: ARIE LEIB ABRAMS/FLASH 90)
Chief of police Kobi Shabtai, Minister of Public Security Omer Bar Lev and Israeli police officers at the Israel Police Independence Day ceremony at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem May 1, 2022.
(photo credit: ARIE LEIB ABRAMS/FLASH 90)

Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai and deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division B. Chad Yarbrough on Monday separately called to allow law enforcement to use technology more aggressively in the fight against crime.

Speaking at the seventh International Homeland Security and Cyber Conference in Tel Aviv, Shabtai said that “there is great importance in developing a strategic outlook that includes cross-border cooperation in the area of technology and of carefully managed continuous operations.

“There is great importance in developing a strategic outlook which includes cross-border cooperation in the area of technology and of carefully managed continuous operations.”

Kobi Shabtai

Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai and deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division B. Chad Yarbrough on Monday separately called to allow law enforcement to use technology more aggressively in the fight against crime.

Speaking at the seventh International Homeland Security and Cyber Conference in Tel Aviv, Shabtai said that “there is great importance in developing a strategic outlook that includes cross-border cooperation in the area of technology and of carefully managed continuous operations.

An aerial view shows 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)An aerial view shows 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)

Setting off alarms for privacy rights advocates

While Shabtai’s statements might be music to the ears of many government cyber practitioners, who feel shackled by outdated rules as they try to protect their countries from rogue cyber actors, it could set off warning lights for privacy rights advocates since different countries have different standards.

More specifically, there has been heavy criticism of the police’s use of one of NSO Group’s tools to hack suspects’ cell phones and routinely collect data beyond what court orders stipulate.

The state prosecution has said that none of the “extraneous” data has been used for prosecutions, but has not given details about how this oversight has been achieved – and has admitted that some of this data is being held on to by law enforcement for other potential future uses.

This past year, the police cell phone hacking scandal especially took over the headlines when it leaked into the public corruption trial of incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, Yarbrough was asked about the difficulty in balancing individual and privacy rights with fighting crime and national security threats.

He said the balance was “extremely complicated. Our laws are not staying at pace with technology. There are ‘going dark’ issues with encryption. But there are privacy concerns. We must follow the constitution about what we can do. Sometimes we cannot do certain things we would like.”

Continuing, the senior FBI official explained that “encryption is the biggest challenge we face that keeps us up at night because [it] represents what we don’t know. Not being able to access the information is a huge challenge and something we need to change,” with new laws.

Israel National Cyber Directorate (INCD) Chief Gabi Portnoy painted a scary picture at the conference in which cyber attackers are outpacing cyber defenders – the public is still using easy-to-crack passwords, and “fake news” influence campaigns are often beyond government control.

Portnoy said that global cooperation to date has been a start, but must be significantly elevated to handle cross-border phenomena like ransomware, which many have started to view as a national security threat.

Further, he cautioned that “the better we are, the worse the problem becomes.”

In other words, the more advanced and more digital Israel and other democracies become – but without building in full cyber defenses from the start – the more “the enemy and cyber crime groups exploit the gaps between the technology and our pace” at adapting cyber defenses after-the-fact.

On the positive side, he noted a new joint UAE-Israel cyber intelligence sharing collaboration regarding ransomware tools, techniques and attackers as part of a broader 37-country US-led initiative.

Portnoy also talked about a cyber-style Iron Dome which Israel could employ using a mix of physical sensors with digital capabilities to “bring an awareness of the big picture to deal with our enemies and our attackers, using all of our assets and figuring out how to protect them.”

Israel Export Institute chairwoman Ayelet Nachmias-Varbin said that Israel’s cyber exports account for 16% of the entire world market in the area.

This might be part of the explanation for the approximately 1,000 attendees, including 50 police chiefs from different countries.