Israel Police must be investigated for using NSO's Pegasus - editorial

The use of these tracking technologies without such transparency is immoral at best, and the use of it without the proper permissions is outright unjustifiable.

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. (photo 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.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

Israel’s NSO Group has been in the public eye for quite a while now, and this week was certainly no different.

Calcalist revealed on Tuesday that law enforcement agencies used NSO’s Pegasus hacking technology against Israel’s citizens. The report claimed that the police did so without the required court approvals.

Police initially denied this, but MKs from all sides of the political spectrum nevertheless asked Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy to form a parliamentary commission of inquiry to investigate the alleged police usage of Pegasus. State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman and the Privacy Authority both announced on Tuesday night they will probe the police regarding the accusations.

These aren’t the first investigations into NSO Group’s questionable actions. For years, NSO’s ethical choices have been put into question, in particular blowing up in public scrutiny when The New York Times reported that the Pegasus software was sold to the Saudi government and was used leading up to the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Then, last summer, a wave of reports came out by an investigative group called the Pegasus Project, which was looking into NSO’s questionable sale of its spyware, claiming that Pegasus has been used by authoritarian regimes around the world to hack the smartphones of journalists, government officials and human-rights activists. Since then, reports have appeared again and again of major political figures’ personal devices having Pegasus technology hacking and spying on them.

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)

The US Commerce Department announced last year that it added NSO Group to its blacklist for engaging in “activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.” Shortly after that, it was revealed that the Pegasus software was found on at least nine phones belonging to members of the State Department.

NSO Group has for years responded to accusations that it works with governments that abuse human rights by saying it only sells its services to carefully vetted organizations for the purpose of saving lives. Surely the public scrutiny on these matters has cast a large shadow of doubt over any claims of innocence by the company.

But just like any other crime, you must not only take the gun away; you must investigate the perpetrator.

The police is justifiably under fire for its alleged use of Pegasus. If the accusations are true, they are a concerning reality about the level of freedom the police has permitted itself to take, independently of any democratic bureaucracy.

This would not be the first time the police has used tracking software against its citizens. The police has been given approval – that was later rescinded and re-given repeatedly – to track phones for the purpose of enforcing quarantine amid the coronavirus pandemic. It was also allowed to look into the phones of former aides to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as part of the investigations against him. 

But there is one key difference: The latter was done with the approval of an expanded nine-justice panel of the High Court of Justice in a high-profile investigation; the former was approved in the Knesset after a vote by representatives of the public. It was done for the safety of said public, with full transparency about the intention and method, and even that was widely questioned and frowned upon.

The use of these tracking technologies without such transparency is immoral at best, and the use of it without the proper permissions – but rather with the permission of other officers within the force, and not even the Attorney-General’s Office – is outright unjustifiable.

The police in Israel has in the past seen a wide range of immunity to accusations of misconduct towards the country’s citizens. From unlawful assaults on minority groups, in particular to mistreatment of demonstrators, haredi (ultra-Orthodox) groups and Black Flag protesters alike, the police has not been seen with the most positive outlook by the public, and this newest accusation certainly doesn’t diminish public criticism toward the force.

We fully support the efforts made by the government to investigate these disturbing accusations.