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NSO Pegasus spyware and the emergence of Israel as a surveillance state

Israel has long been considered the only democracy in the Middle East. Yet personal privacy and limits on police overreach no longer seem to be part of the Jewish State’s democratic principles.

An Illustration of a man holding his phone with NSO GROUP logo on a computer screen at the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
An Illustration of a man holding his phone with NSO GROUP logo on a computer screen at the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Alex Traiman
Alex Traiman is the CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate).

Recent bombshell revelations that Israel Police have been using powerful NSO Pegasus software to hack the phones of private citizens, journalists and political officials are the latest in a series of controversial movements confirming Israel as an official surveillance state.

Israel has long been considered the only democracy in the Middle East. Yet personal privacy, along with limits on police overreach, no longer seems to be part of the Jewish state’s democratic principles.

Over the past two years, several troubling policies and revelations have eroded individual rights along with public trust.

Contact tracing

With the outbreak of the coronavirus, Israel instituted a policy of contact tracing to place individuals who came in contact with known carriers into isolation.

The tracing was done via cell phones. Israeli authorities utilized technology developed by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency (equivalent to the FBI) for the purpose of tracking and identifying terrorists and their networks. With the onset of COVID-19, the variable was simply changed. Instead of using the technology to track threats to homeland security, the technology was turned on the Israeli civilian population.

If an individual contracted COVID, the technology identified every other individual whose phone came within just a few meters of contact with the carrier’s phone. Those who were “traced” were sent into quarantine enforceable by law.

The initial contact tracing program was started by executive order. Shortly after the first wave of the virus subsided, Israel’s High Court ruled that the program required legislation to be continued.

The court determined that “the state’s choice to use its preventative security service for monitoring those who wish it no harm, without their consent, raises great difficulties and a suitable alternative … must be found.”

Responding to the court, the Knesset moved to quickly pass a law enabling the contact tracing program to continue. At the time of the vote, Meretz Party Knesset member Tamar Zandberg told Haaretz, “Not only does the Israeli government decide to use its secret service to track citizens, now it seems that it plans to pass this decision as irresponsible snap legislation. The government’s behavior ought to worry every citizen who fears for Israeli democracy. It is irresponsible, extreme behavior.”

Currently, the government is permitted to use contact tracing for “short periods” at a time. At the start of the Omicron wave, the government reinstituted surveillance contact tracing until it became clear that cases were becoming rampant and isolations would do little to prevent the spread.

Border closures and quarantines

Israel was one of the first countries to shutter its borders during the COVID crisis. Borders have been open and shut, both to citizens and tourists over the past two years, which in itself represents a violation of freedom.

Even while the skies have been open, citizens and tourists entering the country have been forced into varying durations of quarantine. Under certain circumstances, quarantines have been forced to take place at hotels turned into state-run detention facilities. At other points, entrants were allowed to quarantine at home, provided they agreed to wear location-tracking bracelets throughout the quarantine period.

The government soon scrapped the bracelets and instead allowed entrants to quarantine at home.

Durations of home quarantine have been switched countless times, ranging from one day to two weeks.

Before the state permits an individual to enter the country, they must provide contact information, including quarantine address and phone number. Police send SMS messages to the phones of those in quarantine, asking the individual to “opt in” to police location tracking. If an individual refuses to do so or is found to be in violation of the quarantine, police can send an officer to the location. Violators of the quarantine are subject to hefty fines.

Green Pass

Entrance to restaurants, hotels, gyms, malls and large events have been restricted to those carrying a “Green Pass.” The digital pass with a scannable QR code is issued to those who have received the state-determined requisite number of vaccines including boosters or who have officially recovered from covid within a six-month period. Anyone who is more than six months from their last vaccine or recovery, or refused to take shots, including boosters, cannot get a Green Pass that is valid for more than 72 hours.

Furthermore, in order to download the pass, individuals must consent to give Israel’s Ministry of Health full access to their personal medical records. Aggregated medical data from these records is now being provided to Pfizer, the sole provider of Israeli vaccines. It is unclear how else the Health Ministry currently uses the data now or how they can (or will) in the future.

For most Israelis, the threat of losing access to popular venues was enough of an incentive to give the government full access to personal health records without much of a protest.

Smart cities

Over the past two years, streets in major cities, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, have been torn up and repaved. Repaving is the clean-up job. In addition to replacing antiquated water mains, the city has been laying down fiber-optic cable and replacing streetlights. Each of the streetlights is outfitted to become the dock for multiple cameras. The number of municipal cameras throughout the country has increased exponentially in the past two years.

Fiber-optic cables and a new network of 5G towers enable the transfer of unthinkable amounts of two-way data in real-time. Complex algorithms monitor the cameras. Individual movements can be tracked across cities. Municipal officials refer to the camera networks as a component of “smart cities.” Smart cities are at their core surveillance cities.

Likud data breach

During the recent repeat election cycles, major Israel’s entire database of eligible Israeli voters was breached in multiple data hacks. Several parties use applications to target potential voters with SMS messages throughout the election cycle all the way through election day.

The Likud Party had uploaded the entire voter database to an application called Elector, which was subsequently hacked twice in a single week. Data that was leaked included full names, identity-card numbers, addresses and gender of every eligible voter in Israel. In some cases, phone numbers and other personal details were leaked as well.

According to a report in Calcalist, Ron Bar Zik, a senior programmer at Verizon, explained the severity of the leak, stating that: “Every intelligence organization, foreign state or even commercial company can receive data on every person in Israel.”

He added, “I’ve seen many breaches in my life, [but] I’ve never seen such a ridiculous breach like this, which did this much damage.”

The former head of Israel’s Mossad Tamir Pardo reiterated the danger of having the database accessible by anyone who had a SIM card. “In my opinion, using Elector is a real, tangible danger to state security,” he stated. “Everyone who has an Israeli SIM card can download the app. This means that our friends from Hezbollah can also do it, as well as IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] operatives and Hamas operatives in Nablus and Gaza.”

Warrantless searches

Back in October, the government moved to allow police to enter individuals’ homes and collect evidence without a court-issued warrant.

According to the law, warrantless searches are permitted “if a reasonable suspicion has arisen that an object is on the premises that can serve as evidence of a serious crime, on condition that the search is required immediately for preventing the evidence from being removed or damaged.”

The law was passed to aid the police fight against a growing wave of violence, particularly in Israel’s Arab sector, where murders are disturbingly on the rise. Police have complained that the bureaucratic process of obtaining a warrant ahead of searches has led enabled potential suspects to conceal evidence before it can be collected.

The law was advanced by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. “We’re at war,” Sa’ar told the cabinet at a debate before the law’s passage. “We must give the police and law-enforcement agencies better tools to succeed in their missions.”

In response, Zandberg pushed back, stating, “Let’s try to do things differently before resorting to such exceptional legislation. Furthermore, will this infringement of individual rights be limited?”

“The general feeling among civilians is that this new law is being imposed on them rather than targeting organized crime,” she said.

Police hacking citizens’ phones

Perhaps the most explosive infringement of rights are the bombshell reports that Israeli police have been using powerful NSO Pegasus software to track and collect data from the phones of Israeli civilians, many of which were not suspected of criminal activity.

Reports by Israel’s Calcalist tech journal indicate that politicians, professionals within government ministries, journalists and activists have all been unwittingly targeted for police investigations without court-issued approvals.

Following the revelations, politicians want the extent of the program to be fully investigated and exposed. Debates are quickly being waged over whether internal or external actors will be charged with conducting formal commissions of inquiry.

At the weekly cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stated that “the reports apparently describe a very grave situation that is unacceptable in a democracy. These cyber tools were designed to fight terrorism and serious crime, not be used against citizens. We will see to a transparent, in-depth and quick inquiry because all of us—citizens of the State of Israel, government ministers and all establishments—deserve answers.”

Unseating an elected prime minister

 The Calcalist reports charge that NSO Pegasus software was used to hack the phones of key witnesses in the trials alleging corruption against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Other close confidants of witnesses’ phones were hacked. In addition, even Netanyahu’s sons’ phones were allegedly hacked. Nearly all the hacks took place without warrants.

Netanyahu’s trial has now been temporarily delayed due to the revelations.

In the United States, illegally obtained evidence—called “fruit of the forbidden tree”—are not permissible. In Israel, this “fruit” may possibly be used.

Even if the evidence is thrown out and witness testimony is subsequently rendered unfit for use, the damage has been done. The police’s gathering of evidence, which led to formal indictment, succeeded in convincing enough members of parliament not to sit in a coalition with the candidate selected by voters by an overwhelming margin to become prime minister.

In this way, police and the state prosecution—which to a large degree operate without governmental oversight—have, perhaps illegally, hacked Israel’s electoral process.

Israelis are quickly losing faith in state institutions, including the government, the courts, state prosecution and the police. Such lack of public faith makes quality governance that much more complicated. For state institutions to thrive, they require public support.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to view Israel as a true democracy when the rights of individuals can be routinely trampled.

Alex Traiman is CEO and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.

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