3 mayors said to be targeted by police using NSO spyware despite no evidence of offenses

At least three town mayors and their family members have been targeted by Israeli police with spyware made by the controversial NSO group in an attempt to find clues of criminal activity, the Calcalist website reported on Sunday.

Information gleaned from targeting family members of mayors with the Pegasus spyware revealed activity which, although apparently not criminal, was used to justify requests to wiretap the mayors. This in turn led to their detention and questioning, but all cases were eventually closed, according to the report.

The report came amid public outrage over accusations that police routinely used spyware to break into Israelis’ phones without judicial oversight.

Calcalist claimed that the information received showed that investigators submit requests – not formally but through a simple phone call – to the police intelligence unit when they have suspicions about a particular mayor. Sometimes the requests have been made on the basis of information from an informant, without any evidence, after a big tender for a public works project has been published in the mayor’s town – or just a simple intuition.

The website reported that in one case, police hacked into a mayor’s phone but found nothing criminal. Pegasus was then installed on the mayor’s wife’s phone instead, which showed that the woman had spoken with a contractor’s wife. These conversations also showed no indication of a criminal offense and were purely social in nature.

When the investigators obtained these results, they asked for the authorization of the court to wiretap the mayor and carry out a search, claiming that the mayor was in contact with the contractor through his wife in order to influence tenders. The mayor was later arrested and held for some time in jail, but the case was eventually dropped due to lack of evidence.

FILE – In this Sept. 16, 2017, file photo, a person uses a smartphone (AP Photo)

In another instance, Pegasus spyware was used against a mayor and again no wrongdoing was found. Going further, a member of the mayor’s family was also targeted by the tech, which revealed the person had spoken with a contractor about a particular tender. According to Calcalist, the contents of the conversations were “general statements, not necessarily evidence of an infringement”.

Again, a request was made for a court-approved wiretap and search, with investigators saying there was information showing the mayor was influencing the tender through his family member. The resulting investigation led to the arrest of the mayor, who was held for several days, and again the case was eventually dismissed.

A third case showed that a mayor had been hacked and no evidence of wrongdoing was found. Pegasus was then used on a family member, a senior local business official, and a conversation was found between this individual and the owners of another business regarding a business deal between the two companies. Although the conversation seemed harmless, a request was made to listen to the mayor suspected of interfering with a tender. The mayor was arrested and detained, and this case was also closed.

The incidents all happened in 2016, when the police chief was Roni Alsheich, a former senior member of the Shin Bet security service.

Police Chief Roni Alsheich speaks during the launch of the new National Headquarters for Child Online Protection, at the Ministry of Public Security in Jerusalem on November 19, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police told Calcalist in a statement that they were operating “exclusively in accordance with the law”.

“All actions in connection with the wiretapping are only carried out through orders lawfully issued by a judge,” police said. The force then asked the website that “as long as you have material indicating that an offense has taken place, we ask that you transfer it to the authorities as soon as possible”.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev admitted on Sunday that there may have been individual incidents of misuse, but also suggested that Calcalist, who led the reporting of the spyware case, could inflate the information he has received.

Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, Barlev said police were looking into “clues” that have been reported in recent days by Calcalist. He said that so far, from what the police have been able to understand from Calcalist reports, the “facts are completely different” and that there has been no investigation into the mayors or that any investigation was approved by the court.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev during a meeting of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on September 13, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But, he conceded, it is “quite possible” that there were a handful of incidents in which investigators acted on their own to “cut corners”. He said, “It’s against the law and they will be brought to justice.”

Citing the attorney general’s own investigation into the matter, Barlev said it was still too early to rule out the possibility that in the past “there have been some sort of incidents where a police figure has deviated from regulations “.

Barlev said the priority now was to ensure that none of these activities were still ongoing at this time. But he defended the police force having technology in its toolbox, saying the methods are needed to fight organized crime – which he noted can include elected officials – which uses advanced systems to attempt to conceal its activities.

The Calcalist business newspaper first reported last week that police have for years used the Pegasus spyware on a large scale against Israeli civilians, including people who are not suspected of any crime, without legal oversight. Other reports of abuse have since emerged.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced an investigation into the case, writing to Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai that “it is difficult to overstate the seriousness of the alleged violation of fundamental rights” if the report is true.

Police Chief Kobi Shabtai, left, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, center, and Northern Command Police Chief Shimon Lavie, right, at a ceremony in Nazareth on November 9 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Pegasus is considered one of the most powerful cyber surveillance tools available on the market, giving operators the ability to effectively take full control of a target’s phone, download all device data, or activate its camera or microphone without the knowledge of the user.

NSO Group, the company that produces the software, has been embroiled in numerous scandals in recent years and has faced a torrent of international criticism over claims that it helps governments, including dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, to spy on dissidents and rights activists. In November, the US Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO Group, adding it to the list of foreign companies that engage in malicious cyber activity.

NSO has neither confirmed nor denied selling any technology to the Israel Police, stressing that it “does not operate the system once sold to its government customers and is in no way involved in the operation of the system”.

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