An Israeli investigation found “no indication” that police illegally hacked the mobile phones of dozens of public figures, the Justice Ministry announced Monday, contradicting the key claims of a series of explosive investigative reports in a leading Israeli newspaper.
Israel’s attorney general ordered the investigation last month in the wake of the unsourced reports by the Calcalist business daily, which said police spied on politicians, protesters and even members of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle, including one of his sons.
The paper said police used Pegasus, a controversial spyware programme developed by the Israeli company NSO Group, without obtaining a court warrant.
In its announcement, the Justice Ministry said the investigation led by the country’s deputy attorney general found no evidence to support the claims.
“There is no indication that police deployed Pegasus software without a court order against people on the list published in the media,” it said, adding that NSO and government security experts assisted in the probe.
The investigation found that police received authorisation to spy on the phones of three of the people on the list, but only one was successfully infiltrated. It said investigators looked into the use of a second type of spyware used by police and also found no signs of wrongdoing.
The Calcalist reports prompted a public uproar. The current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, said the allegations were “very serious,” and Netanyahu, who is on trial for alleged corruption, demanded a “strong and independent investigation” while trying to cast doubt on the charges against him. The country’s public security minister, who oversees the police force, has also formed a high-level government commission of inquiry.
Police officials, both former and current, have denied any wrongdoing. Those denials, along with the lack of evidence uncovered so far, have begun to draw scrutiny on Calcalist’s reports.
Its reporter, Tomer Ganon, has stood by his work. Over the weekend, he said he would continue to protect his sources. “I risked my good name not because of naivety, but because I checked the facts,” he wrote on Twitter.
Pegasus is a powerful tool that allows its operator to infiltrate a target’s phone and sweep up its contents, including messages, contacts and location history.
For NSO, which has faced mounting criticism over Pegasus, Monday’s report was a rare piece of good news. It said it hoped the conclusions “will result in reporting that no longer relies upon misinformation and political organizations issuing biased and prejudiced reports.”
NSO has been linked to snooping on human rights activists, journalists, and politicians in countries ranging from Saudi Arabia to Poland to Mexico to the United Arab Emirates. In November, the U.S. Commerce Department blacklisted the company, saying its tools had been used to “conduct transnational repression.”
NSO says it sells the product only to government entities to fight crime and terrorism, with all sales regulated by the Israeli government.
The company does not identify its clients and says it has no knowledge of who is targeted. Although it says it has safeguards in place to prevent abuse, it says it ultimately does not control how its clients use the software.
NSO said the misuse of spyware “is a serious matter and all credible allegations must be investigated.” It called for “an international regulatory structure” to be put in place to “oversee issues raised by the misuse of cyber intelligence tools.”