TEL AVIV – Israel’s Justice Ministry said on Monday that the week-long investigation found no evidence that Israeli police had systematically evaded judicial oversight to hack into civilians’ phones.
The announcement contradicted recent allegations in Israeli news media that rogue detectives had used surveillance software from NSO Group, a major Israeli spyware company blacklisted by the United States, to illegally target dozens of activists, local politicians, businessmen and senior officials. hack. as well as critics and associates of Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister.
The Justice Department said police investigators had never hacked 23 of the 26 people named in recent investigations published by Israeli business journal Calcalist, and had received court approval to attack the remaining three. , only one of which was successfully infiltrated.
The flurry of accusations and rebuttals reflected how, after years of lengthy global investigation but little domestic criticism, NSO has finally become the center of debate and research within Israel itself.
For over a decade, with the permission and support of the Israeli government, NSO sold spyware to numerous foreign democracies, including the United States and in Western Europe, as well as to authoritarian foreign states that used it to hack into dissidents’ phones. . , lawyers and politicians. That led to investigations into NSO by foreign news outlets and cyber watchdogs, contributed to the Biden administration’s decision to blacklist NSO last year, and helped raise international awareness for a new breed of hacking software that allows governments to secretly access NSO. have access to every part of the phone.
After a decade of relative anonymity within Israel, NSO came into the domestic spotlight in January after Calcalist alleged that NSO spyware had been used not only against foreigners, but illegally against Israelis themselves.
The paper’s investigation was hailed as a triumph of investigative journalism and sparked a heated debate over the state of Israeli democracy and the role of surveillance in Israeli society.
But the government’s counter-investigation has proved almost as shocking, as it completely refuted previous reports of Israeli police behavior.
Led by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari, the government’s investigative team included technology experts from the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, and Mossad, the foreign espionage agency.
Members of the team came to their conclusions by accessing logs describing how agents used the spyware and what the police couldn’t tamper with, according to a former Israeli official familiar with the investigators’ methods and could not be traced. identified because of the sensitive legal issues involved. The researchers checked their work by seeing if it was possible to modify the logs themselves without leaving a digital trail, which they said was impossible.
Premature leaks of the Justice Department’s findings led some commentators to question whether Calcalist was the victim of a hoax.
Calcalist’s report was “one of the biggest media failures in Israel since the state was founded,” wrote Mordechai Gilat, a veteran investigative journalist and columnist for Haaretz, a rival newspaper. “What was published was not a journalistic investigation, nor a cousin of a journalistic investigation, nor even a distant relative,” Mr Gilat added.
Commenting on the government inquiry, Calcalist said his conclusions “require serious consideration and re-examination of the findings and allegations we have published.”
The outlet added, “we will not hesitate to correct as much as necessary,” but also claimed the government investigation “fully validates Calcalist’s revelations that police are using super-invasive offensive spyware to infect citizens’ phones.”
In several articles and tweets published in recent days and weeks, the journalist who led the Calcalist investigations, Tomer Ganon, repeatedly stuck to his findings.
But Mr Ganon said he would not rush to provide further evidence, and that he could not do so just yet for fear of harming his sources.
†I swore to my sources“I will protect you until all truth comes to light,” he wrote on Saturday. In another tweet, he wrote: “In this poker against the state, the cards are only drawn when we decide it is the right time.”
Despite several attempts, DailyExpertNews was unable to confirm that Calcalist’s claims were well founded.
Mr Ganon briefly deleted his Twitter account ahead of the Justice Department’s announcement, when news began to leak about its conclusions. But the story of Mr. Ganon reappeared after conspiracy theorists hypothesized that he had been murdered by his political enemies. Skeptics of his reporting nevertheless acknowledge that Israel needs to answer more questions about civilian surveillance, regardless of the veracity of Calcalist’s accusations.
Some question whether the police should have the authority at all to tap citizens’ telephones, with or without a court order. And legal experts worry that Israel’s wiretapping laws, written before the rise of the Internet, are ill-suited to regulate modern telephones that can surf the Internet and store thousands of videos, images and emails.
Several branches of the Israeli government have purchased NSO spyware over the past decade, including the Shin Bet and the Mossad. At the encouragement of Mr. Netanyahu, the Israeli police have used spyware since 2015 and infiltrated more than 200 targets in the past two years. And Mr. Netanyahu’s government often allowed the sale of NSO products to foreign governments to gain international favor.
But despite his administration championing spyware while in office, Mr. Netanyahu has since tried to use the opposition to NSO to discredit his own ongoing corruption trial.
In a recent twist, trial prosecutors admitted that police used spyware to infiltrate the phone of a key state witness in Netanyahu’s trial, several hours longer than a court had allowed. Prosecutors also said the police had also not sought court approval to download a contact list stored on the witness’s phone.
These confessions gave new impetus to efforts by Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters and lawyers to force the adjournment or collapse of his trial.
“We have a new Watergate in Israel,” Yair Netanyahu, the son of the former prime minister, told Newsmax on Sunday. “Corrupt police officers and corrupt judicial bureaucrats in the prosecution have illegally spied on my father.”
Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv and Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem.