Spying Begins At Home: Israel's Government Used NSO Group Malware To Surveill Its Own Citizens

from the activists,-political-opponents,-and-the-occasional-criminal dept

Israeli malware purveyor NSO Group may want to consider changing its company motto to “No News Is Good News.” The problem is there’s always more news.

The latest report from Calcalist shows NSO is aiding and abetting domestic abuse. No, we’re not talking about the king of Dubai deploying NSO’s Pegasus spyware to keep tabs on his ex-wife and her lawyer. This is all about how the government of Israel uses NSO’s phone hacking tools. And that use appears to be, in a word, extremely irresponsible.

Israel police uses NSO’s Pegasus spyware to remotely hack phones of Israeli citizens, control them and extract information from them, Calcalist has revealed. Among those who had their phones broken into by police are mayors, leaders of political protests against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former governmental employees, and a person close to a senior politician.

Not exactly the terrorists and dangerous criminals NSO claims its customers target. Instead, the targets appear to be more of the same non-terrorists and non-criminals NSO customers have targeted with alarming frequency: political opponents, activists, etc.

That already looks pretty terrible (but extremely on-brand for NSO customers). But it gets a lot worse. The government didn’t even bother trying to fake up any justification for this spying.

Calcalist learned that the hacking wasn’t done under court supervision, and police didn’t request a search or bugging warrant to conduct the surveillance.

Is it a “rogue state” when the entire state has decided the rules don’t apply to them? Asking for people I would never consider friends.

Perhaps this abuse could have been contained, curtailed, or averted entirely. But the upper layers of the Israeli government cake couldn’t be bothered.

There is also no supervision on the data being collected, the way police use it, and how it distributes it to other investigative agencies, like the Israel Securities Authority and the Tax Authority.

“Fuck it,” said multiple levels of the Israeli government. It would be a shame to let these powerful hacking tools go to waste — not when there are anti-government activists out doing activism. Israeli law enforcement decided — not incorrectly, it appears — it was a law unto itself, and issued its own paperwork to target protesters demonstrating against the former Prime Minister and COVID restrictions handed down by the Israeli government.

At least some of these malware attacks were targeted. In other cases, law enforcement engaged in almost-literal fishing expeditions to find more targets for NSO’s Pegasus spyware.

NSO’s spyware was also used by police for phishing purposes: attempts to phish for information in an intelligence target’s phone without knowing in advance that the target committed any crime. Pegasus was installed in a cellphone of a person close to a senior politician in order to try and find evidence relating to a corruption investigation.

If you like your damning reports to be breathtaking in their depiction of government audacity, click through to read more. The further you scroll down, the worse it gets. Evidence obtained with illicit malware deployments was laundered via parallel construction. Employees of government contractors were targeted without consultation with any level of oversight. A town’s mayor was hacked — allegedly because the Israeli government suspected corruption — but no evidence of corruption was obtained. However, all data and communications harvested from the compromised phone still remains in the hands of the government. In one case, cops used NSO malware — again without court permission — to identify a phone thief suspected of publishing “intimate images” from the stolen phone online.

In only a few cases was the malware used to investigate serious crimes. But even in those cases, no legal approval was obtained and the malware was deployed furtively to fly under the oversight radar.

NSO’s response to this report is more of the same: Hey, we just sell the stuff. We can’t control how its used, even when it’s being purchased by our own government.

The Israeli police statement is far more defensive:

“The claims included in your request are untrue. Israel Police acts according to the authority granted to it by law and when necessary according to court orders and within the rules and regulations set by the responsible bodies. The police’s activity in this sector is under constant supervision and inspection of the Attorney General of Israel and additional external legal entities…”

Well, then I assume the paperwork containing signatures and explicit approval of all relevant authorities is being swiftly couriered to Calcalist HQ to provide evidence refuting the claims made in its article. Otherwise, this just sounds like the bitter muttering of an angry government spokesperson willing to do nothing more than allude to the Emperor’s New Court Orders. Given the routine abuse of NSO Group malware by governments around the world, it comes as absolutely no surprise it’s being abused at home as well. And the non-denials by governments are starting to wear as thin as NSO’s “hey, we’re only an enabler of abuse” statements.

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Companies: nso group

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