My Word: Pegasus, the police and Trojan horses

Apart from asking why the police would undertake such an operation, I wondered who leaked the information to the paper, why and why now?

 THE HEAD of a ‘Cyber Horse,’ made from discarded electronic bits, is displayed near the entrance to the Cyber Week conference at Tel Aviv University in July 2021. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
THE HEAD of a ‘Cyber Horse,’ made from discarded electronic bits, is displayed near the entrance to the Cyber Week conference at Tel Aviv University in July 2021.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

“We have the best police that money can buy,” my late father used to quip every time a scandal or failing came to light involving the men and women in blue. It’s not funny. 

In a series of exposes, the financial paper Calcalist published claims that the Israel Police used NSO’s Pegasus technology to carry out electronic surveillance without receiving proper judicial authorization and without the required oversight processes. 

One of the many questions the story raises is “Why?” 

The list of reported victims is a Who’s Who of Israeli society including the directors-general of several ministries, a few mayors, prominent business people, journalists, political and social activists and one of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sons. The former prime minister himself famously never carries a phone on him. I understand his thinking.

The revelations were variously described as an earthquake, earth-shattering and a bombshell. The list of names and functions according to the Calcalist report is so varied, it is hard to understand what motivated the police who seemed to be on a broad “phishing expedition.” If the allegations are proven true, it would be evidence of massive corruption in the police force but not necessarily for financial gain, more as a power trip; perhaps to collect material to be used to build future cases. It gives a new twist to the term “malicious software.”

 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)

Apart from asking why the police would undertake such an operation, I wondered who leaked the information to the paper, why and why now? I understand the importance of protecting journalists’ sources but the motivation and timing of a leak must always be taken into account.

Opinion was divided – like the country – on who had what to gain from the illegal phone-tapping and from the publication by Calcalist. Some thought it was a plot by Netanyahu to halt his corruption trials, which were indeed temporarily suspended this week as several of the names on the paper’s list were involved in one way or another for either the prosecution or the defense. Others determined that it was evidence of a deep-state plot to overthrow the former prime minister. It certainly raised additional issues concerning police methods in the lead-up to the trial.

It’s possible that the publication is part of a broader campaign against NSO. The Israeli company was singled out for scrutiny in recent reports by a group of 17 media organizations as part of The Pegasus Project working with The Forbidden Stories consortium. The media partners include The Guardian, Le Monde, The Washington Post, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit, Radio France, Le Soir, Haaretz/TheMarker, The Wire, and PBS Frontline, among others. The Forbidden Stories website notes it enjoys the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Amnesty International just last week published a report claiming Israel is an apartheid state.

One thing is for sure, the Israel Police does not come out of this affair looking good. Not only did the police apparently not seek the necessary court approval before tapping into people’s phones and computers, but they also initially denied any wrongdoing.

As usual when the going gets tough, Israelis responded with humor. Memes began circulating on social media with comments like: “From tomorrow, Whatsapp is adding a third tick to show when the police have read the message” and “It turns out that the only branch of the police that doesn’t listen to citizens is the 100 emergency line.” There were also references to cyber viruses and the corona pandemic that was temporarily replaced in the headlines. “Who knows what the police R-rate is?” asked one wag.

My dad would have appreciated the jokes, if not the situation.

There were calls across the political spectrum for a state or government commission of inquiry. Initial inquiries have already been established within the police and by former attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit, who left his post last week and was replaced this week by Gali Baharav-Miara. Knesset Speaker Micky Levy (a former police commander), State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman and the Privacy Protection Authority all announced probes. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reportedly asked the Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to help with the investigation.

The difficulties in finding a body to reliably and objectively examine the affair indicate the extent of the problems. You can’t leave the police to their own devices when it comes to investigating their own hacking. The judges who in some cases authorized the use of evidence even though it was gained without the mandated prior approval cannot be left to judge this case. And all those who should have been aware of what was going on and weren’t – or, even worse, those who possibly knew and didn’t act to stop it – must also be sidelined, although it’s hard to tell ahead of the inquiry who they are.

Just last month, for example, an expanded panel of Supreme Court justices issued a ruling allowing the police access to data on the cellphones of two former Netanyahu aides, as part of an investigation against them for alleged witness intimidation, even though the phones were not appropriated with proper authorization. 

There are also immense technology challenges involved. Advanced methods for extracting data cover their own tracks. Committing the perfect hack is like committing the perfect murder; it’s undetectable.

WHILE THE focus naturally was on Netanyahu and the political ramifications of the reports, the police hacking affair is relevant to every single citizen. A police force and a judiciary without checks and balances, lacking in accountability, is an assault on democracy. Uncontrolled wiretapping is a violation of human rights, and the people mentioned in Calcalist’s report rightly felt violated.

Nobody wants to think of someone going through their private messages, photos, conversations and financial data, just as nobody wants their home to be broken into. 

Despite the amount of material that is shared openly on social media platforms today, everyone wants to have some control over what is known about them. Some journalist friends said they felt insulted that they were not considered important enough to be police targets. They were joking. They felt relieved.

One of my greatest fears is that one day this sort of spy technology will be available to every teen and pre-teen who wants it, let alone adult members of security services. I can only pray that what is considered a scandal today is not considered standard in the future. Already we all accept terms of Big Tech companies without reading or understanding them, granting others access to vast amounts of personal information.

Israel’s favorite cop remains Hashoter Azulay (Azulay the Policeman) the naive, softhearted constable patrolling the streets of Jaffa as portrayed by Shaike Ophir in the movie based on a book by satirist Ephraim Kishon. But a whistle, notebook, good nature and luck are not enough to beat the forces of evil, especially in the real world in the 21st century.

We are living in a digital, dangerous age. It is important to keep in mind that spyware is a weapon, and like any weapon its dangers and benefits depend on who is using it and why. The police and security forces need to be equipped with modern methods to combat crime and terrorism. That includes sophisticated technologies.

While the Israel Police is referred to as a collective noun, it is, of course, made up of thousands of officers. For all the jokes, most of them are honest, dedicated individuals working long, hard hours in difficult conditions for not enough pay. Care needs to be taken not to harm them or the general public in the desire to carry out necessary reforms.

There must be a system of ongoing external supervision of the police by a body that can be trusted. The units where problematic procedures seem to have become part of the accepted culture must be disbanded. And the so-called wiretapping law must be updated to make it applicable to today’s technological world.

Under the circumstances, I’m almost afraid to ask if anyone is listening.

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