Spanish PM’s phone hack deepens Europe’s spyware crisis – POLITICO

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Europe’s spyware scandal has just reached the top ranks on the continent.

The Spanish government said Monday that Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was hacked with Pegasus software, an Israeli-made digital hacking tool used to spy on phone communications. Sánchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles fell victim to the malware in May and June 2021, in what Madrid described as “illegal and external” intrusions into government communications.

It’s a stark reminder that even the phones of Europe’s most powerful leaders are not safe from digital spying.

Sánchez is the first confirmed leader of a European and NATO country to fall victim to spyware. But for months the evidence of political espionage with spyware has been piling up in Europe. Researchers revealed last month that numerous political figures in Catalonia have been victims of digital espionage. High-ranking European Union officials and UK government employees may also have been targeted with Pegasus spyware, and use of Pegasus has also been documented in Poland and Hungary.

The latest twist in the Pegasus saga is increasing pressure on lawmakers to restrict the use of spyware, which is used by government agencies around the world to tap phones and steal data and communications from targets.

“Our democracy and the security of the European Union are under threat. It requires a determined response from European authorities,” said Saskia Bricmont, a member of a European Parliament committee of inquiry into the use of Pegasus in Europe. You and other legislators are calling for “a strict ban on illegal spyware”.

But the European Parliament still has a long way to go before convincing national governments of the need to crack down on spyware.

European governments have been reluctant to go into the details of spyware, partly because of the use of digital hacking tools like Pegasus, has served security agencies around the world to fight crime and ward off national security threats.

Spain’s Presidential Minister Félix Bolaños said Monday the hacks into Sánchez and Robles’ phones were “illegal and external… They are alien to government agencies and have no judicial authorization from any official body.”

The Spanish government’s decision to release the information on their leader’s phone is also a change in their response to the messages from Pegasus on the Catalan leaders’ phones.

Last month, Madrid denied illegally spying on dozens of Catalan pro-independence leaders – but gave little to no details about the use of Pegasus by its own CNI intelligence agency. The Catalan government maintains its belief that Spanish government agencies were behind the hacks and is calling for an investigation into the matter.

On Monday, Catalan regional president Pere Aragonès accused Madrid of double standards. “When there is mass espionage against the Catalan institutions and independence, we get silences and excuses. Today everything is in a hurry,” he says called on twitter.

“I know what it’s like to feel spied on… But the double standard is obvious,” he added.

red lines

The confirmed hacking of a prime minister’s phone could be the turning point activists and pundits have been waiting for.

“There is an endemic problem with large political incident bodies that don’t understand the absolutely keen danger posed by this type of political hacking,” said John Scott-Railton, a lead expert on Pegasus at Canadian research institute Citizen Lab, in a last month Interview.

The European Parliament’s Pegasus inquiry will be held in Strasbourg on Wednesday. Lawmakers have tried to act quickly, hoping to use the avalanche of reported hacks as a way to build consensus on stopping spyware in Europe.

However, the European Commission has so far brushed aside suggestions that it should act, insisting that it is up to national capitals to investigate espionage cases.

Senior Brussels officials have even displayed a cavalier stance on digital espionage, with the bloc’s digital tsarina Margrethe Vestager appearing to downplay the Pegasus threat last month, and EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders denying information about a possible hack of his device to have received.

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