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Catalonia wants answers on who is spying on officials using Pegasus software. Obtaining them will involve an uphill struggle with the powers of the state – and not just in Spain.
On Tuesday, senior Catalan officials slammed Madrid, saying it was behind spy campaigns targeting the region’s independence movement and exposed by digital rights research group Citizen Lab.
“Trust in the Spanish government and its institutions is minimal because it is really difficult to trust who – everything leads to believe – has spied on you,” Catalan President Pere Aragonès told a press conference on Tuesday.
The Catalan leader called for an urgent, independently audited investigation that leads to “maximum transparency and accountability”, adding that a democratic state should not spy on its own citizens, democratic movements or political opponents.
Aragonès is just a senior Catalan official targeted with the help of Pegasus. Others include former regional presidents Quim Torra, Carles Puigdemont and Artur Mas. Toronto-based digital rights group Citizen Lab reported on Monday that 63 Catalan politicians, academics and lawyers associated with the independence movement had been targeted by the spyware, and that at least 51 of them had their phones infected.
The region will suspend its political collaboration with the Spanish government until Madrid clarifies its role in the spying incidents, Aragonès said.
But Spain has denied illegally spying on Catalan independence leaders.
Isabel Rodríguez, spokesperson for the Spanish government, said on Tuesday that the Spanish authorities had “nothing to do” with spying on the Catalans and “absolutely nothing to hide”, adding that Spain would cooperate in any judicial investigation that could be open in the case.
Rodríguez neither confirmed nor denied whether the Spanish government has a contract with the NSO Group for the use of Pegasus, arguing that certain issues are “protected by law” as they relate to national security.
She added that in Spain any “limitation of fundamental rights” such as intervening in telephone conversations requires the approval of a judge. “The government does not accept that the democratic quality of our country is called into question,” Rodríguez said.
A trail of intrusion
The Spanish government is the latest to face accusations of misusing spyware to hack into political opponents.
Pegasus was developed by the Israeli company NSO Group and is sold mainly to government entities. The spyware gains deep access to phones to allow authorities full access to victims’ communications and private data. Controversy over its use has been going on for years and erupted last summer when a survey called the Pegasus Project found the software was being used in more than 50 countries on members of civil society, politicians, lawyers, journalists and others.
The Polish and Hungarian authorities are registered as customers of the NSO group. Revelations last year that the spyware had been found on the phones of key opposition figures and political dissidents sparked outcry in both countries that the government was misusing the software for political purposes.
Just this week, Citizen Lab also found evidence that Boris Johnson’s phone and those of other British officials had been hacked.
Finding out who is behind the hacks is technically complex. But Citizen Lab said on Monday that “strong circumstantial evidence suggests a link to Spanish authorities.” Spain’s intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Center (CNI), also had an account with Pegasus’ NSO group, according to a former employee of the Israeli firm quoted in a new investigation by New Yorker magazine.
And last week Reuters reported that EU justice chief Didier Reynders was among several senior EU officials whose phones were tapped using the software, raising concerns in Brussels about who is targeting its top brass for political espionage.
Spain’s Defense Ministry, which oversees the CNI, did not respond to a POLITICO request for comment.
Pressure mounts to stop abuse
In Brussels, lawmakers on Tuesday launched the work of a special commission of inquiry to shed light on the use of Pegasus by European governments.
The European Data Protection Supervisor, who oversees the privacy of EU bodies, also called in February for a ban on spyware such as Pegasus.
And yet, those who expected a decisive intervention from Brussels could be disappointed. European Commission spokesman Johannes Bahrke said misuse of spyware was “unacceptable”, but stressed that it was up to national authorities to investigate its potential misuse.
“Let me clarify that the Commission has no role in overseeing national security services or national investigations,” he told reporters at a news conference.
Brussels’ inaction on the issue has provoked fury and frustration from democracy activists – who view the use of the software against political opposition as a matter of human rights, privacy and democracy rather than a matter of national security.
These activists have already cried foul following an investigation by Hungary’s privacy agency which authorized the use of spyware by the country’s government, and there are fears that the checks and balances issues in some EU countries do compromise meaningful monitoring of spyware usage.
“This is a European scandal that requires an investigation at European level,” said Hannah Neumann, a German Green MEP who sits on the inquiry committee. “I hope the Commission will be stronger, but Parliament is leading this time.”
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