Israel's police chief said Thursday that he had ordered an extensive investigation into a newspaper's claims that the force had used controversial Israeli spyware to hack the phones of protesters, mayors and other citizens under investigation without proper authorization.
Earlier this week a Hebrew-language business paper published an investigative report claiming that the police had used the NSO Group's Pegasus hacking software to surveil leaders of a protest movement against then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as a raft of other alleged misuses of the technology.
The police have dismissed the report as inaccurate and said they only operate according to the law, but the publication drew outcry from lawmakers and prompted multiple investigations by various Israeli authorities into the allegations. The NSO Group said it does not identify its clients.
The NSO Group, an Israeli spyware company, has faced mounting scrutiny over its Pegasus software, which has been linked to snooping on human rights activists, journalists and politicians across the globe. In November, the US Commerce Department blacklisted NSO, barring the company from using certain US technologies, saying its tools had been used to “conduct transnational repression.”
According to The Associated Press, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said that immediately following the report's publication, police launched “a thorough internal investigation” that has yet to find any instances of unlawful surveillance. He called on the paper to provide “concrete details that will allow us to inspect the alleged incidents.”
Tuesday's Calcalist article didn't name any of the people whose phones were allegedly hacked, nor did it cite any current or former sources in the police, government or NSO. The report referred to eight alleged examples of the police’s secretive signal intelligence unit employing Pegasus to surveil Israeli citizens, including hacking phones of protesters, mayors, a murder suspect and opponents of the Jerusalem Pride Parade, all without a court order or a judge's oversight.
The company says its products are intended to be used against criminals and terrorists, and that it does not control how its clients use the software. Israel, which regulates the company, has not said whether its own security forces use the spyware.
Earlier this week, Israeli lawmakers called for a parliamentary investigation into the allegations, and both the attorney general and state comptroller said they were looking into the claims of misuse.
Shabtai said that “if it turns out that there were specific instances in which regulations were violated, the police under my command will work to improve and correct," pledging full transparency. At the same time, he defended the police’s lawful use of such technologies to combat crime.