Pegasus: Israeli police ‘used spyware to hack phones of citizens, activists and mayors’

'No one is safe from Pegasus spyware,' Amnesty International said after a report emerged that Israeli police used Pegasus to spy on citizens without a court order (AFP)

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  January 18, 2022

Israeli police bought the spyware developed by the NSO group in 2013 and has been using it against its citizens, according to a report.

Israeli police have used the notorious spyware Pegasus to hack the phones of political activists, mayors, senior officials in a state-owned company, a person close to a Knesset member, and criminals, without a court order, according to a report by Israeli newspaper Calcalist.

Calcalist, which previously revealed the use of Pegasus against Israeli citizens, said that it was the most blatant exploitation of the spying technology as Israeli regulations lag behind.

NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was authorized for use by senior police officers in recent years and was handled by the police’s Signet unit. The Israeli police, under the leadership of a former Shin Bet officer, bought the spyware in 2013, and has since been using it.

It targeted political activists who protested against former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling him to resign as he faced corruption charges, bribery and breach of trust.

Calcalist titled one of its investigation pieces: “NSO company in the service of Israeli police: Burglary of citizens’ phones without supervision or control.”

In November, the US blacklisted the NSO Group, saying its activities were contrary to its national security interests.

The group’s spyware Pegasus could hack smartphones without the owner’s knowledge, using a zero-click technique, harvesting phone data, photos, emails, voice messages, and turning it into a tracking and monitoring device.

The Israeli police reportedly used Pegasus without a court order and control to hack a mayor’s phone to collect evidence that he has received a bribe, which was used against him later, according to Calcalist.

It also deployed Pegasus to spy on an associate to a Knesset member in an attempt to collect evidence of corruption, and on senior employees in a state-owned company to prove financial offences, the report said without revealing the names of the targets.

‘An easy option’

In other cases, however, the Israeli police willingly used Pegasus to hack the phones of Israeli citizens, who themselves were not under probe, to assist officers in collecting material that could then be used to pressure people who were being investigated. 

Calcalist reported that Pegasus was “an easy option” for the Israeli police to collect evidence.

During Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister, which ended in June 2021, Pegasus was part of an Israeli “cyber diplomacy” push to forge closer ties with countries in Africa and the Gulf.

The Pegasus software has been used by governments, including MoroccoSaudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to illegally access the phone data of activists and journalists worldwide.

On Monday, the Jordanian lawyer and human rights activist, Hala Ahed, said that her phone was hacked by Pegasus, accusing Jordanian official bodies of orchestrating the act.

Amnesty International said that Calcalist’s report was an “important exposé, if accurate, must cause a serious reaction, both in Israel and around the world.”

“No one is safe from Pegasus spyware. These revelations are further proof that journalists, politicians, lawyers, activists and human rights defenders are all at risk from secretive surveillance,” Amnesty said.

“The entire cyber-surveillance industry must be under tighter scrutiny, and so too should all of the Israeli security industry.”