Israel’s innovative surveillance technology was once hailed as a prized export, bolstering diplomatic ties abroad, but reports that secret spyware was also activated against citizens at home have sparked domestic outrage.
Bombastic claims in the Israeli media focus on the controversial Pegasus malware made by the Israeli company NSO, which can turn a phone into a pocket spying device.
Last year, a comprehensive investigation by an international consortium of journalists revealed the extent of Pegasus use around the world.
Now, reports allege that the spyware was also used internally, targeting dozens of Israelis who were not suspected of criminal activity and without a judge authorizing surveillance.
According to Israeli business newspaper Calcalist, a list of 26 targets includes former aides to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as his son Avner, senior leaders of government ministries, protest leaders and others.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett promised action, saying the reported conduct was “unacceptable in a democracy”.
On Tuesday, he called for a preliminary investigation of the 26 Calcalist nominees and said a more thorough investigation would be mounted in a few days.
Calls from senior officials were mounted for a state commission of inquiry, Israel’s highest-profile investigation.
Pegasus allows users to invisibly infiltrate a cell phone, siphoning a person’s contacts, conversations, photographs and data, and enabling remote activation of a phone’s camera and microphone.
Writing in the Yediot Aharonot daily, Nadav Eyal noted that Israel has developed cyber surveillance tools “primarily to track Palestinian terrorist organizations.”
Gradually, the technology’s use expanded, first when Israel followed nonviolent Palestinian activists and later when spyware was privatized and sold abroad as “political gifts from the Netanyahu government,” Eyal wrote.
Last year’s global investigation – focused on the spyware’s deployment in more than 50 countries – found among a list of thousands of potential surveillance targets 180 journalists, 600 politicians, 85 human rights activists and 65 business leaders around the world.
Eitay Mack, a lawyer suing NSO on behalf of allegedly targeted Hungarian journalists, told AFP that Pegasus’ exports “were out of control.”
Israel’s Defense Ministry must approve all defense industry exports, and the country has faced widespread criticism over NSO sales to governments with poor human rights records.
NSO says its software is designed to fight crime and terrorism.
Israel had initially defended its export control procedures, but as criticism mounted, the defense establishment announced a review.
Mack argued that as Israel continued to sell the invasive technology to governments around the world, “there was an internal normalization within the Israeli government to use it” against its own citizens.
‘Like a boomerang’
Among those expressing outrage is Netanyahu, now the opposition leader in parliament.
“Police illegally spied on countless citizens with the most aggressive tools in the world – journalists, right and left social activists, mayors, business people, politicians, their families,” Netanyahu told lawmakers on Monday.
“They followed them, listened to them, entered their deepest secrets, and who knows what forbidden use they made of that spying.”
Mack said it was “embarrassing” that governments led by Netanyahu enthusiastically sold the program to “authoritarian” leaders around the world – but that the spy technology ended up being used against his inner circle.
Several witnesses in an ongoing corruption case against Netanyahu were also spied on, according to the Calcalist report.
The motivation for spying on Netanyahu’s son Avner, his former aides and witnesses at his trial is unclear.
But his lawyers have demanded that the case – in which he is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, allegations he denies – be put on hold while the spyware allegations are investigated.
The Jerusalem District Court canceled hearings scheduled for this week and instructed prosecutors to answer questions from the former prime minister’s lawyers about the extent of the spying.
Mack argued that Pegasus returned to Netanyahu “like a boomerang”.