(Bloomberg) -- Israeli officials pushed back against a media report that police illicitly used controversial spyware developed by NSO Group to monitor critics of Benjamin Netanyahu and other citizens, as the state watchdog prepared to launch an investigation.
Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev, whose office oversees the police, told Army Radio on Wednesday there might have been “an exception where someone decided to use the software on his own accord without approval,” but nothing like that had so far been found.
“The claims against the police, at least those that the police were able to decipher from the article, were for the most part erroneous,” he added, specifically denying that protesters’ phones were hacked.
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Calcalist, a business newspaper, reported Tuesday that police used NSO’s Pegasus surveillance software without court warrants to hack into the phones of demonstrators who had been involved in more than a year of protests against then-Prime Minister Netanyahu. Other citizens allegedly had their phones hacked as police attempted to shore up investigations into crimes.
On Wednesday, the newspaper said police also used civilian hackers to help in certain cases.
Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said there was no immediate evidence such surveillance took place without court warrants, but that the allegations merited investigation.
“The gap between the claims made by the Calcalist newspaper and the police statements are impossible to bridge,” Sa’ar said in a parliamentary meeting. “What we know now is that nothing was done without a warrant, but the state comptroller is carrying out an investigation as an independent official. It is good the allegations will be checked out and the conclusions made public knowledge.”
He said the attorney general’s office, which operates under his ministry, would also be looking into the report.
Israel Police said in an emailed statement that no action was taken without judicial authorization. NSO said it sold its Pegasus spyware under a license to national security forces and had no control over how it was used.
NSO has been embroiled in numerous scandals surrounding its Pegasus phone-hacking tool in recent months, over allegations the software has been used by governments to spy on political dissidents, human-rights activists and journalists. The U.S. has blacklisted NSO for allegedly targeting such groups, and the surveillance software has also reportedly been used to hack U.S. State Department phones.
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said all the claims that have surfaced around the use of NSO technology have made it clear that many countries, even democracies, have not used spyware strictly for its declared purpose, to stop crime and terrorism.
“That is the main lesson, that once a democracy has this kind of a tool it is very difficult to block them from using it for forbidden purposes,” she said.
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