A planned commission of inquiry to investigate the alleged use by Israeli police of the Pegasus spyware seems unlikely to go ahead after an initial police investigation determined that only three phones were hacked.
Police investigators, assisted by cyber experts from the Mossad and the Israel security agency Shin Bet, checked claims in a report in the respected Calcalist newspaper that 26 people, including public officials, journalists, activists and witnesses in the corruption trial of former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, were targeted for unwarranted surveillance by law enforcement.
The police investigation uncovered only three spying attempts by its cyber unit: only one was successful, and it was done legally.
The target was Shlomo Filber, a state witness in the Netanyahu trial. Police admitted to making pinpointed use of the software against Mr Filber, but insisted that information from his phone was not presented as evidence in the ongoing trial in which Mr Netanyahu has denied all the charges against him, citing a left-wing witch hunt aimed at ending his political career.
The initial allegations prompted prime minister Naftali Bennett to promise a full inquiry to uncover the truth amidst allegations that the police had overstepped their authority and were endangering Israeli democracy.
Despite the initial police investigation questioning the veracity of the Calcalist report, experts who examined the mobile phones of two former government officials mentioned as police targets said on Friday they were over 90 per cent certain that the phones had been hacked.
Pegasus, developed by the Israeli NSO company, is considered one of the most powerful cyber-surveillance tools available on the market, providing operators with the ability to effectively take full control of a target’s phone, download all data from the device and activate its camera or microphone without the user knowing.
Former police chief Roni Alsheikh said he was certain the reporting on police misuse of the NSO spyware was false.
“Despite being retired for three years, as someone familiar with the system I can say that the reported description is totally unfounded,” he said. “If what was published did happen, it’s unusually grave. That cannot happen in a democratic country. The question is whether it happened.”
Calcalist has so far not responded to the latest developments or provided any proof to back up its claims of widespread police spying against civilians.
NSO has not commented on the Calcalist allegations because a government investigation is ongoing but it has sent a warning letter to the newspaper over its claim that NSO covers its tracks and blocks documentation of actions taken with the spyware. By doing so, the report said, it’s impossible to thoroughly investigate the use of the programme and its list of targets.