Digital privacy advocates were alarmed but not surprised Tuesday by a report alleging that police in Israel used NSO’s Pegasus spyware against Israeli citizens, including opponents of former right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
According to Calcalist, the special operations cyber unit of Israel’s police remotely planted the private company’s spyware on phones belonging to political activists, mayors, former government employees, and others, “taking over their devices and having the ability to listen to all their calls and read all their messages.”
The reporting indicates that the extrajudicial surveillance occurred without court supervision, and police did not request search or bugging warrants for the targeted individuals—who were suspected of no crimes.
“After all the other surveillance scandals have been exposed, the chickens come home to roost,” tweeted Israeli-American journalist Mairav Zonszein. “Not surprising. What will be is if justice is served.”
Those scandals include repeated revelations that NSO’s spyware was surreptitiously installed on the devices of dissidents, human rights defenders, journalists, and others around the world—especially in other Middle Eastern nations—as well as reporting last month that Pegasus was used by an unknown party or parties to hack the iPhones of nearly a dozen U.S. State Department officials.
NSO, an Israeli company, says Pegasus is solely intended for crime and terrorism prevention.
“However,” reports Calcalist, “NSO’s spyware was also used by police for phishing purposes: attempts to phish for information in an intelligence target’s phone without knowing in advance that the target committed any crime. Pegasus was installed in a cellphone of a person close to a senior politician in order to try and find evidence relating to a corruption investigation.”
Roee Neuman, a spokesperson for the Black Flags, a former protest movement that staged weekly anti-Netanyahu demonstrations, demanded Tuesday that Israeli Minister of Public Security Omer Bar-Lev “immediately” release the names of people the police targeted with Pegasus.
“This is not the time for silence,” he tweeted. “Now is the time for action.”
John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab who has been following Pegasus for six years, tweeted in response to the new report: “Let me tell you, this is depressingly familiar. Give authorities secret, unaccountable hacking powers, and abuse is only a matter of time.”
Eric Goldstein, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, asked, “When it comes to [Netanyahu] and NSO’s business model, is any of this surprising?”
Responding to the widespread outrage in Israel over the new revelations, Israeli journalist and +972 executive director Haggai Matar tweeted that criticism of such surveillance must also “extend to all intrusive and oppressive tools used against Palestinians.”
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