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Advanced Surveillance Technology Misused by Israel Police, Investigation Finds

The Israel Police exceeded its authority several times in collecting data using advanced surveillance technology, a monthslong investigation by Israel’s deputy attorney general found. The 98-page report was published on Monday.

The report criticized the lack of oversight of the surveillance by the police, and calls for further regulations on spyware, since the police in some cases ignored the legal limitations of information gathering.

The report comes after accusations that the Israel Police used the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, which it calls Saifen, in an illegal manner.

According to Israeli law, eavesdropping is only allowed with court approval and must be done within the dates defined by the court. The report said that the police exploited the technological abilities of the NSO surveillance program to gather information that was extracted before approved dates, along with information not permitted to be investigated, such as contact details, notes, and a list of applications.

The Israeli newspaper Calcalist reported earlier this year that the Israel Police purchased the Pegasus spyware from NSO in 2016, and had used it to collect information from numerous Israeli activists and public officials, many times with no legal permission to do so.

While the report released on Monday states there is no evidence to support most of the allegations, it does recognize there was some misuse of the surveillance program and the information that it gathered. The report was written by a specially appointed team, headed by the Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Matters Amit Marari.

The team had no special authorization to investigate non-volunteer witnesses and was granted no access to police documentation. As a result, it based the report only on materials the police voluntarily provided, and on information given by NSO, the company which developed the controversial hacking tool.

Tech companies should develop products that suit the law, not the other way around. If a tool is too powerful it should not be purchased by the police. The legal system should set the rules, not haggle with hackers on their abilities.

The Israel Police said in a statement that: “The report shows clearly that, contrary to the false publications, Israel Police only used its technological abilities to prevent and solve crimes, according to court orders, and that no deliberate illegal activity was carried out.” The statement also said that: “The gaps found in the report will be fully answered by a special team, which will ensure suitable reforms are made to allow the Israel Police to use its technological abilities once more.”

The Israel Police did not respond to questions from The Media Line.

There are some who are critical of the investigation.

“This investigation team had no real tools to investigate this matter. No special permissions, no granting of protection for witnesses. I’m quite curious how they made up their mind about some of the conclusions,” Eitay Mack, an Israeli human rights lawyer and activist, told The Media Line. “Even if terrible things have happened, the investigation never could have revealed them.”

Mack is a vocal advocate for human rights, and he emphasizes the importance of privacy for civilians. “Just think of how much this story hurt public trust in the police. Was it worth it? I haven’t seen any statistics showing actual criminals were caught by using this software,” he said.

One of the conclusions in the report is that there should be more technical information involved in the legal process of allowing eavesdropping and that the law defining eavesdropping should be updated to suit advanced tools.

Mack completely disagrees. “Tech companies should develop products that suit the law, not the other way around. If a tool is too powerful it should not be purchased by the police. The legal system should set the rules, not haggle with hackers on their abilities,” he said.

While the report discusses how the spyware should be regulated in the future, Mack has his own conclusions. “Hacking tools like these are way too powerful. A democratic state should not allow its police to use anything that resembles them. It’s just too strong, and there’s no real legal way to oversee that the police aren’t exploiting it,” he said.

Israel’s attorney general and public security minister did not respond to The Media Line’s questions on the topic.