Home research company Use of Pegasus spyware on Spanish politicians causes ‘crisis of democracy’ | Spain

Use of Pegasus spyware on Spanish politicians causes ‘crisis of democracy’ | Spain


The use of Pegasus spyware to target Catalan pro-independence leaders and Spanish politicians – including the prime minister – has plunged Spain into a “crisis of democracy” and national security that can only be resolved with independent investigation, a leading cybersecurity expert has warned.

Last month, researchers from the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto revealed that at least 65 people linked to the Catalan independence movement had been targeted by spyware between 2017 and 2020.

A fortnight later, the Spanish government announced that the phones of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles were hacked with Pegasus in May and June last year.

Although the Spanish government tried to defuse the feud by sacking the country’s spy chief, Paz Esteban, earlier this week, the double scandal refuses to fade.

Ron Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab, said he was shocked to find Pegasus being used against political targets and their families as well as lawyers and journalists in what was supposed to be an “ostensibly democratic” society. . According to its creators, the Israeli group NSO, the spyware is only sold to governments to help them track down criminals and terrorists.

Deibert told the Guardian that Esteban’s dismissal did not come close to answering troubling questions raised by recent revelations.

“Removing the intelligence chief feels like presenting someone as a sacrificial lamb to me,” he said.

“And that doesn’t answer any of the questions of who bought the spyware, who authorized it, how justification was given to prosecute people who are clearly not legitimate targets by any international standard. reasonable, and involving gross violations of the right to privacy. If the intention is to make this gesture and hope that the problem will go away, I think that is insufficient.

The head of the Citizen Lab said last month’s report stressed the urgent need to create an independent commission empowered to investigate what had happened and to propose reforms to prevent it from happening again.

“I think it’s even more necessary now in light of the dramatic findings that the prime minister’s and defense minister’s own phones were hacked with Pegasus,” Deibert said.

“What’s going on? If I were a Spanish citizen, I would demand there was such an impartial investigation. But it looks like it might not happen.

A fortnight ago, Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) joined Spain’s three right-wing parties in vetoing a parliamentary inquiry into the Pegasus scandal.

A PSOE spokesman said the Congressional committee discussed was unnecessary because an internal investigation by Spain’s national intelligence center was already underway, as was an investigation by the public ombudsman.

Deibert, who was in Spain this week, said he was surprised by the complacency he encountered and disappointed that many people in the country did not seem to have a problem with the targeting of Catalan leaders.

For many in Spain, the regional independence movement – which attempted a unilateral and illegal attempt to secede in October 2017 – remains a direct challenge to the country’s “indissoluble unity” which is enshrined in the constitution.

For Deibert, however, the issue transcends national politics.

“I told people that if they come to the conclusion that this is a Catalan problem and maybe they can dismiss it as such, or put it in a little box and frame it that way, they are grossly mistaken,” he said. .

“To me, what this illustrates is that you have this extraordinarily powerful surveillance technology – and a market providing it that is almost entirely unregulated – used by governments, as this case illustrates, that are not not accountable and have major problems with public accountability and oversight. And so it’s really a crisis of democracy – that’s how I think – in Spain.

Deibert also hit back at suggestions that Citizen Lab’s investigations were biased and had been compromised by the fact that one of its researchers, Elies Campo, had himself been targeted with spyware because of his apparent links with the independence movement.

Deibert said Campo had been the victim of a “frankly baseless and truly outrageous smear campaign”. He also said he was deeply disturbed to discover that Campo’s father, a prominent doctor, had been targeted on his official hospital-issued phone, which allegedly contained sensitive medical information.

Deibert said he rejects any suggestion that the Citizen Lab was politically motivated or in any way beholden to the Catalan independence movement.

“We are not a company, we never do commissioned research, we are impartial and we are an academic research group led and supervised by me, the Principal Investigator, who manages all aspects of this project from start to finish. .end,” he said.

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While the Spanish government declined to speculate on who might be responsible for targeting Sánchez and Robles’ phones, referring only to “illicit” and “external” attacks, fingers were pointed in the direction of Morocco, which was engaged in a tense situation. diplomatic standoff with Spain when the hacks took place.

A data leak at the heart of the Pegasus investigation revealed that more than 200 Spanish mobile phone numbers had been selected as possible targets for surveillance in 2019 by an NSO Group client believed to be Morocco, but Morocco denied having spied on foreign leaders using Pegasus, and said reporters were “unable to prove [the country had] any relationship” with NSO.

Deibert said that while he had no information about these attacks, there were two possible scenarios: that it was a foreign government, possibly Morocco; or that it was a “rogue domestic agency” operating against the state.

“Given what I saw in Spain, it’s a completely plausible scenario,” he said. “Both cases – both hypotheses – point to the urgent need for an independent and impartial investigation.”