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Catalan spyware scandal prompts soul-searching in Madrid, Brussels – POLITICO

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Catalonia wants answers about who is spying on officials with Pegasus software. To get them there will be a bitter struggle with the state powers – and not only in Spain.

Top Catalan officials lashed out at Madrid on Tuesday, claiming it was behind spy campaigns against the region’s pro-independence movement uncovered by digital rights research group Citizen Lab.

“Trust in the Spanish government and its institutions is minimal because it’s really hard to trust who – everything points to it – was spying on you,” Catalan President Pere Aragonès said at a news conference on Tuesday.

The Catalan leader called for an urgent, independently audited investigation leading 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 high-ranking Catalan official being attacked with Pegasus. Others include former regional presidents Quim Torra, Carles Puigdemont and Artur Mas. Toronto-based digital rights group CitizenLab reported on Monday that 63 Catalan politicians, academics and lawyers linked to the pro-independence movement were targeted with the spyware and at least 51 of them had their phones infected with it.

The region will pause political cooperation with the Spanish government until Madrid clarifies its role in the espionage incidents, Aragonès said.

But Spain has denied illegally spying on Catalan pro-independence leaders.

Isabel Rodríguez, a spokeswoman for the Spanish government, said on Tuesday that the Spanish authorities had “nothing to do” with the Catalans’ espionage and “absolutely nothing to hide”.

Rodríguez has neither confirmed nor denied whether the Spanish government had a contract with NSO Group to use Pegasus, arguing that some matters are “protected by law” because they concern national security.

She added that in Spain any “restriction on fundamental rights” such as interfering with telephone conversations requires the approval of a judge. “The government does not accept that the democratic quality of our country is being questioned,” said Rodríguez.

A trace of intrusion

The Spanish government is the latest to face accusations of using spyware to hack into political opponents.

Pegasus was developed by the Israeli company NSO Group and is mainly sold to government agencies. The spyware gains extensive access to phones to give authorities full access to victims’ communications and private data. Controversy surrounding its use has dragged on for years, erupting last summer when an investigation called Pegasus Project found that the software was used in more than 50 countries by 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 using the software for political ends.

Just this week Citizen Lab also found evidence of hacks from Boris Johnson’s phone and those of other British officials.

Finding out who is behind the hacks is technically complex. But Citizen Lab said Monday that “strong circumstantial evidence points to a link with 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 one Investigation in the New Yorker Magazine.

And last week, Reuters reported that EU Justice chief Didier Reynders was among several senior EU officials whose phones were tapped with the software, raising concerns in Brussels over who is targeting its top executives for political espionage.

The Spanish Defense Ministry, which oversees the CNI, did not respond to a request for comment from POLITICO.

The pressure to stop abuse is mounting

In Brussels on Tuesday lawmakers started work on a special committee of inquiry to get to the bottom of European governments’ use of Pegasus.

The European Data Protection Supervisor, who oversees EU bodies’ compliance with data protection rules, also called for a ban on spyware like Pegasus in February.

And yet those expecting decisive action from Brussels could be disappointed. European Commission spokesman Johannes Bahrke said the abuse of spyware was “unacceptable” but stressed it was up to national authorities to investigate possible abuse.

“Let me be clear that the Commission has no role in overseeing national security services or national investigations,” he told journalists at a news conference.

Brussels’ inaction on the matter has sparked anger and frustration among democracy activists – who view the software’s use against political opposition as a human rights, privacy and democracy issue rather than a national security issue.

These activists have already wept over an investigation by Hungary’s data protection agency that cleared the country’s government use of spyware, and there are concerns that checks-and-balances issues in some EU countries make meaningful oversight of the use of spyware are subverted.

“It’s a European scandal that needs to be investigated at European level,” said Hannah Neumann, a German Green MEP who sits on the inquiry committee. “I would hope that the Commission is stronger, but this time Parliament is leading.”

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