Police using NSO tech to pursue suspects without court orders - report

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Police using NSO tech to pursue suspects without court orders - report
© (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Israel Police officers oversee people wearing masks in Jerusalem

Israel Police have been using NSO’s cell phone hacking Pegasus technology to pursue Israeli civilian suspects in regular criminal cases with no court orders for years, Calcalist reported on Tuesday.

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The astounding report, if true, would blow gaping holes through a number of NSO, police and potentially state prosecution narratives about the proper balance between collecting evidence and respecting citizens’ privacy rights and court protections from unlawful searches and seizures.

In fact, the entire system of searches and seizures for police wiretapping and other such invasive measures is supposed to be based on a carefully calibrated apparatus of approvals from courts.

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According to the report, the police, since 2013-2015, have been using cell phone hacking technology as a loophole because the specific technology was not discussed by prior law, which themselves were written before the technology existed.

Despite that historical discrepancy, it has been clear from court decisions and prior precedent, that, if true, the uses by the police of Pegasus against suspects in regular criminal murder, corruption and other cases, would be a blatant violation of legal limits if they were carried out without a court order.

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Police using NSO tech to pursue suspects without court orders - report
© Provided by The Jerusalem Post A PROTESTER HOLDS a banner during a protest attended by about a dozen people outside the offices of the Israeli cyber firm NSO Group in Herzliya, last week. (credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)

Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev responded to the report, saying that “there is no practice of wiretapping or hacking into devices by the Israel Police without the approval of a judge.”

The report suggested that the police have gotten away with this conduct by “packaging” evidence they collected from hacking cell phones illegally as “intelligence,” but without revealing the source.  

Allegedly, some officials in the state prosecution and Attorney-General’s Office were in on the secret as they gave some of the approvals, which would require them to explain how they could sidestep the courts.

Under Israeli law, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) has the power to carry out such cell phone hackings to prevent impending terrorist attacks from either Palestinians, Israeli-Arabs or Israeli-Jews, and without a court order as long as various top Shin Bet or Attorney-General Office officials sign off.

But this same power, with no court order, does not exist for the police, and certainly not for non-terror-related cases.

According to the report, Pegasus was purchased already by former police chief Yohanan Danino in 2013 and its use was escalated by police chief Roni Alsheich in 2015. Alsheich came from the Shin Bet and brought in new officials to the police with intelligence backgrounds who had a different cultural approach to collecting evidence than the police’s more traditional approach of waiting for court approvals.

Further, the report said that under former justice minister Amir Ohana, the police were ordered to use the cell phone hacking against anti-Benjamin Netanyahu protesters.

The police responded on Wednesday saying that the Calcalist report was a distortion of the facts. There was no blanket denial of the use of Pegasus in regular criminal cases, but the police did issue a boilerplate-style statement emphasizing that it seeks court orders where required and seeks approvals from the prosecution and Attorney-General’s Office where required.

The police response failed to confront the specific allegations from the report.

NSO made a general denial of having violated any laws, but generally fell back on its standard statement that it cannot reveal who its clients are and is not responsible for its clients’ conduct.

Sources did point out that some of the sales numbers and other concrete details in the article appeared to be wildly off and unrealistic, which could also draw into question the credibility of other information in the article.

It was also noted that the article does not present any forensic proof for the allegations.

However, NSO has numerous times said that it is impossible for its technology to be used for Israeli citizens.

The Jerusalem Post has learned that it is impossible for non-Israeli clients to use Pegasus against Israelis, but that, in theory, it might not be impossible for Israeli agencies to use Pegasus on Israelis (with the presumption that they would be doing so according to Israel’s laws).

The Attorney-General’s Office, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and former justice minister Ayelet Shaked had not yet responded to the allegations.

The report comes as NSO has had the worst few months of its existence, getting slammed left and right by the US and French governments, media reports across the globe and human rights groups.

Recent reports indicated that NSO may not survive the ongoing crisis financially.

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