The police wiretapping scandal in Israel, at the center of which is spy software from the local company NSO Group, is spreading. Despite former police chief Roni Alsheich’s assertion that “the Israeli police don’t have a Pegasus to clear all doubts,” a commission of inquiry that was set up discovered that prosecutors were using relevant spyware. But this happened under the name Seifan alias Saifen, which is said to have been a Pegasus prototype.
In response to a disclosure story in the Israeli business newspaper Calcalist that shook the country earlier this year, the government set up a committee of inquiry led by Deputy Attorney General Amit Merari. It published its final report a few days ago.
Not authorized to eavesdrop
According to Israeli media, the investigators found that the system, dubbed Seifan, “can intercept certain types of data in the hands of the police that the police are not authorized to collect under the Wiretapping Act.” For example, it is possible to obtain information “that is on the target device and was created before the wiretapping began and even before the date of the court order”. The state Trojan could also be used to collect data “that does not represent communication between computers”. These are, for example, log details, app lists, contact data and notes stored on the device.
The commission also suggests “that the importance of deploying a system with far-reaching technological capabilities that represents a game-changer in the world of wiretapping has not been fully understood by Israeli police decision-makers.” Even over the years, senior management failed to appreciate the scope of the surveillance program’s potential capabilities and the fact that “prohibited material entered police computers via cell phones” and was readily available through them.
Regulations “prohibiting the use of excess information” were not enough to contain the software, the report says. Corresponding capabilities should have been technologically defused before the system was activated. In addition, a mature control mechanism is required.
Serious violation of privacy
However, the committee found no evidence that the police tapped mobile phones without a court order. Calcalist’s list of potential victims, such as government critics, entrepreneurs and politicians, could not be confirmed either. The NSO Group filed a defamation lawsuit against the newspaper in February based on these allegations. Nevertheless, the paper sees its research as largely confirmed and quotes several legal experts, according to which the investigation report indicates significant shortcomings in the functioning of the police and consequently serious violations of privacy and the rights of suspects.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has additionally published screenshots from a presentation of the Pegasus previous version, which the NSO Group developed in 2014 specifically for the Israeli police. These reveal the concrete tools and far-reaching possibilities of the Seifan system for everyday investigative work.
An “extra-territorial” police group
The individual components of the spyware, which were to be presented to the security cabinet headed by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, covered a wide range of functions, the report said. These range from listening to all conversations on an infected cell phone, to reading text messages, to opening the microphone and camera remotely without the owner’s knowledge. The presentation was prepared by the then newly appointed head of the police intelligence service, Brigadier General Yoav Hassan, a former member of the Israel Defense Forces’ elite Unit 8200.
According to Haaretz, under his leadership and with the support of Mossad agents, the unit developed into a “quasi-independent and isolated group that a senior police officer described as “extraterritorial.”
The screenshots feature the NSO logo and the product name Pegasus, although the police version ended up being named differently. Furthermore, they show some of the distinctive features that are present in the spyware according to international reports. One of the images reveals a WhatsApp correspondence between a “John Doe” (equivalent to Max Mustermann) and a named former sales manager at NSO and five other employees of the manufacturer.
Demo version of Pegasus
Another ability of Seifan mentioned in the presentation is a kind of large eavesdropping. It listens to a device’s surroundings in real time by remotely activating the microphone. In Israel, this type of wiretapping requires an order from the president of the competent district court or his deputy. With the spy software, the police are said to have had full access to all files stored on the phone – including end-to-end encrypted files, since these are also available in plain text on the end device, at least temporarily.
Observers describe Seifan as a demo version of Pegasus. The user interface and the technical resources have hardly changed compared to today’s product. Whether the presentation was shown to government officials and how long the spyware was used remained open. The Israeli police assured: “The gaps identified in the report are being extensively processed by a team deployed by the chief of police.” The recommendations will be followed.
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