What is Pegasus, and Why’s It a Problem for Israel?

The sophisticated spyware by NSO Group has become a major liability for the Jewish state

By Jason Silverman | | Topics: Pegasus, NSO Group
Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Israeli economic daily Calcalist rattled the country on January 18 when it published an article claiming to expose police use of Pegasus, a spyware platform developed by Israeli hi-tech firm NSO Group, to breach the phones of private citizens without regulation. As a result, both sides of the political spectrum, including head of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, demanded that the issue be investigated immediately in order to fully understand the severity of the matter.

Although under less optimal circumstances, what may be known in the future as the “Pegasus Affair” shows that political consensus can be found when you least expect it.

 

What is Pegasus and what are the claims against the Police?

Pegasus is a spyware platform developed by NSO Group that provides covert access to mobile phones. It is capable of performing a number of activities such as tracking calls and location, reading text messages, tapping into passwords and accessing the device’s camera and microphone. In general, the spyware is typically used for fighting against terrorist activity. Although the Mossad has other means for hacking into the phones of terror targets, it was reported that the Israeli national intelligence agency also made use of Pegasus in the past.

The central claim of the aforementioned article is that the Israel Police used the spyware to gain access to the private phones of Israeli citizens without receiving a court order. The affair began with police officials denying the claims that they used the spyware at all. However, after the initial stutter, they admitted there were a few in the police department who used Pegasus for their investigations.

To make matters worse for the police, Calcalist then published another article on February 7 including a list of 26 names of individuals who’s personal phones they claim had been infected by the spyware. The list of people that Calcalist claims were exploited by the spyware includes public figures and prominent social activists.

Although spyware like Pegasus is normally reserved for serious threats that harm Israel’s national security, the claims point to it being used to keep tabs on central organizers of social protests. The threat perception must have been soaring for the police to use the spyware against the organizers of protests such as the one that took place outside of the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem during Netanyahu’s tenure, the protest for ending racism against Ethiopians, and the demonstrations blocking the freeways to pressure the government to raise the monthly stipend for individuals with disabilities.

In addition, the former Director Generals of the Ministries of Justice, Transportation and Finance were tracked via the spyware. If the allegations are true, the police didn’t stop there. Prominent figures in the private sector such as Rami Levi as well as the CEOs of two major telecommunications providers, Bezeq and Walla, were also exploited. Benjamin Netanyahu’s youngest son, Avner Netanyahu, also appears to have been targeted.

However, it is also important to note that not all of the targets were individuals who were not under suspicion of participating in criminal activity whatsoever. The police are also being accused of using the spyware in order to retrieve information from state witnesses, the most prominent of them being Shlomo Filber in the Netanyahu corruption trial. If the claims are true, and the police illegally tapped into a state witness’s phone to retrieve evidence, it could completely turn the case around to the benefit of the former prime minster.

 

What steps are currently being taken?

Voices all over the political spectrum unanimously called for a public investigation to be conducted immediately. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reacted to the affair by vowing, “We won’t leave the public without a response.”

Having personal interest in the matter, Netanyahu fervently attacked the use of Pegasus (the claims being made took place during his tenure as Prime Minister).

Although the Pegasus affair is still unfolding, throughout the past several days Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari led a probe along with former Shin Bet and Mossad officials looking into the 26 individuals who were allegedly target by the police using the spyware.

Who did the investigation team decide to work with in order to look into the claims? Israel Police’s SIGINT (signals intelligence), the same unit which is currently being accused of criminal offenses. As of now, it does not appear that the investigation team has found concrete evidence of the use of the spyware on the individuals found in the list. This may be surprising, or it may not be—after all, working with the accused to find evidence against themselves may not constitute the cleanest investigation process.

The NSO Group allegedly also has access to information pertaining to the users of its spyware. They must be included in this investigation in order to corroborate the counter claims of the police. The team is expected to publish the results of the investigation in the coming days.

The investigation that is looking into the egregious claims made against the police must be conducted at the highest professional level and be perceived by the public as entirely independent of bias. Otherwise, it will create a highly precarious situation in the country in which the public will have little faith in the police. The police, whose sole purpose is to preserve and protect public safety, must be strengthened and not weakened. As Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said, “We have no other police.” Because Israel has no other police, the force must be perceived as clean and subject to checks and balances just like any other state body. Thus, in order to realize this goal there should not be an investigation committee chaired by politicians who all have an ideological and not necessarily professional agenda for reaching honest results.

 

Could we have seen it coming?

For several years now, NSO’s Pegasus spyware has appeared in international headlines for its increasing use among authoritarian regimes around the world.

In Bahrain, researchers at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto discovered that the mobile phones of nine Bahraini activists were successfully hacked between June 2020 and February 2021 by government officials. Saudi Arabia also has been using the Israeli spyware for suppressing dissent and opposition, possibly including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Even after this incident, NSO was encouraged by Israel’s government to continue working with Saudi Arabia.

In the West, there are governments who because of its track record of working with non-democratic and oppressive regimes, have banned the use of NSO spyware. For example, in November 2021, the US Commerce Department added the NSO Group to its trade blacklist since it sold its spyware to foreign governments that used it to target officials, journalist and others.

If this spyware was being used against innocent civilians in foreign countries, how could we think that it couldn’t come back to haunt us at home?

It must raise our awareness to the dark uses such spyware has and how our security industry has, perhaps not intentionally, facilitated its use against journalists, activists and other civilians abroad. So long as the Israeli government has a say in the regulation of NSO technology, it has a moral duty to better vet its users abroad and an even greater responsibility to protect its own citizens from being abused by its capabilities at home.

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