It was clear from the start that the Israeli company NSO was not being transparent at all as it circled the wagons after the Pegasus scandal broke. Now, another investigation has dismantled the company’s defense of its activities, which for years has been supplying regimes across the world with spyware which has been used to hack the phones of politicians, activists, dissidents and journalists, from Asia to Latin America.
According to an investigation by the Israeli website Calcalist, Pegasus has also infiltrated the cell phones of Israeli citizens, a possibility that had always been denied by NSO’s founders (“We decided not to operate against phone numbers of Israeli and American citizens,” said CEO Shalev Hulio in July).
It was the Israeli police that came into the picture and began using the spyware for almost a decade, against mayors, leaders of the anti-Netanyahu protests (which for a number of weeks last year turned the then-premier’s address in Jerusalem into a stage for an anti-corruption rebellion) and former government officials. To clarify, no one was under investigation for anything. All of them were spied on without legal approval: no court was asked for permission, there were no authorizations; all this surveillance was conducted outside the law.
The house of cards is beginning to shake in the wind: for months, NSO has been hiding behind the claim that Pegasus was designed to discover and perhaps prevent terrorist activities, and that the fact that the regimes to which it was sold used it against dissenters couldn’t be blamed on the company.
This defensive line was fully embraced by the Israeli government, which then tried to put on a show by opening an internal investigation, trying to elide the simple fact that Pegasus can be sold only with governmental authorization, just like arms in general. For some time now, Israeli surveillance technologies have been referred to as the Trojan horse of cyber diplomacy: forging political alliances with regimes with which it has plenty of differences (such as the Arabs), in exchange for providing tools for social control.
After Forbidden Stories and several international publications tore through the smokescreen with a mega-investigation renamed “the Pegasus Project,” now Israel is forced take a look in the mirror.
Not that surveillance is anything new, given the widespread use of it against the Palestinians (from Pegasus to the “8200” special unit of the army, to the latest such app that has been identified, Blue Wolf), who for decades have been the politically ideal “enemies,” but also lab rats for testing weapons and tech.
But it came to light that Israeli citizens are also being spied on. And have been for a long time: according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the police bought the basic version of Pegasus in 2013 for 2.7 million shekels (760,000 euros), and then spent millions more in subsequent years on upgrades. In 2013, Yohanan Danino was head of the police, but it was his successor Roni Alsheich in 2015 who pushed for increasing the use of the spyware.
Those who infected the phones of fellow citizens with it were a special unit of the police, the Sigint cyber unit, consisting—no surprise there—of former members of the “8200.” Not the internal intelligence services, the Shin Bet, the only ones authorized by law to hack other people’s phones without the green light of a judge. The Shin Bet does not even need Pegasus: for decades, it has been the number one perpetrator of espionage against Palestinians, and it already uses the most advanced technologies.
Now the police are trying to justify themselves: they’re saying they acted “according to the powers recognized by law,” but they don’t want to “comment on the instruments used.” Investigations and inquiries will surely follow. But by now, the house of cards has been blown away (the victims, after all, are no longer “only” Palestinians): Pegasus isn’t used for fighting crime, Minority Report style, but serves to keep dissent at bay, both real and presumed. The United States—in a small discourtesy to its long-time ally—has already blacklisted it in November.
In the EU, the liberals of Renew Europe are asking for the same to be done here: Pegasus has been found on the phones of regime opponents, journalists and lawyers in Hungary and Poland. These countries make up half of the Visegrad group—a staunch ally of Israel (while nobody cares that these countries are led by anti-Semitic leaders).