JERUSALEM – Israel’s attorney general said Thursday he was launching an investigation into Israeli police’s use of phone surveillance technology following reports that investigators improperly tracked targets without authorization.
In a four-page letter, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said he had not yet found evidence substantiating the claims in the Israeli business daily Calcalist, which said police monitored the leaders of a protest movement against then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, mayors and other citizens without court approval. But Mandelblit said many questions remained unanswered, and that he was forming an investigative committee headed by a top deputy.
The specific cases mentioned by the newspaper “raise a very troubling picture,” he said, but don’t provide “sufficiently concrete information” to identify the cases of alleged misuse.
Mandelblit's letter came a few hours after Israel's police chief said he had ordered an extensive investigation into the newspaper's claims. In a report this week, Calcalist said police had used the NSO Group's Pegasus hacking software to surveil some of Netanyahu's political opponents, 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 an outcry from lawmakers and prompted multiple investigations by various Israeli authorities into the allegations.
The NSO Group does not identify its clients and says it has no knowledge of who is targeted. 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.
The 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 U.S. Commerce Department blacklisted NSO, barring the company from using certain U.S. technologies, saying its tools had been used to “conduct transnational repression.”
In announcing his investigation, 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.
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.