Spanish Prime Minister’s Phone Hack Deepens Europe’s Spyware Crisis – POLITICO
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Europe’s spyware scandal just hit the continent’s top rankings.
The Spanish government said on Monday that Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was hacked using Pegasus software, an Israeli-made digital hacking tool to snoop on phone communications. Sánchez as well as Defense Minister Margarita Robles fell victim to the malware in May and June 2021, in what Madrid called an “illegal and external” intrusion into government communications.
It is a stark reminder that even the phones of Europe’s most powerful leaders are not safe from digital espionage.
Sánchez is the first confirmed leader of a European and NATO country to have fallen victim to spyware. But evidence of political espionage using spyware has been mounting in Europe for months. Researchers revealed last month that many political figures in Catalonia were victims of digital espionage. Top EU and UK government officials may have also been targeted by Pegasus spyware, and use of Pegasus in Poland and Hungary has also been documented.
The latest twist in the Pegasus saga is increasing pressure on lawmakers to limit the use of spyware, which is used by government agencies around the world to tap phones and snoop on targets’ data and communications.
“Our democracy and the security of the European Union are under threat. It requires a firm response from the European authorities,” said Saskia Bricmont, a member of the European Parliament’s inquiry committee on the use of Pegasus in Europe. She and other lawmakers are calling for “a strict ban on illegal spyware.”
But the European Parliament will have some way to go before it convinces national authorities of the need to crack down on spyware.
European authorities have been wary of going into detail about spyware – partly because of the use of digital hacking tools as Pegasus has served security authorities around the world to fight crime and avert national security threats.
Spanish Prime Minister Félix Bolaños said on Monday that the hacking of Sánchez and Robles’ phones were “illegal and external … They are alien to state agencies and do not have the legal authorization of any official agency.”
The Spanish government’s decision to declassify intelligence about the leader’s phone is also a shift from how it reacted to news of Pegasus on Catalan leaders’ phones.
Last month, Madrid denied illegally spying on dozens of Catalan independence leaders – but gave little or no details about the use of Pegasus by its own intelligence agency, the CNI. The Catalan government has maintained its belief that Spanish authorities are behind the hacks, and is demanding an investigation into the matter.
On Monday, Catalan regional president Pere Aragonès accused Madrid of double standards. “When mass espionage is carried out against Catalan institutions and independence, we get silence and excuses. Today everything is in a hurry,” he so on Twitter.
“I know what it’s like to feel spied on… But the double standards are obvious,” he added.
The confirmed hacking of a Prime Minister’s phone could be the watershed moment activists and experts have been waiting for.
“It’s an endemic problem with major political events not understanding the absolutely stark danger that this kind of political hacking poses,” John Scott-Railton, a leading expert on Pegasus at the Canadian research institute Citizen Lab, said in an interview last month.
The European Parliament’s Pegasus inquiry will meet on Wednesday in Strasbourg. Lawmakers have sought to move 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 off suggestions that it should act, insisting that it is up to national capitals to investigate any cases of espionage.
Top officials in Brussels have even betrayed a cavalier attitude to digital espionage, with the bloc’s digital czar Margrethe Vestager last month appearing to play down the threat from Pegasus and European Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders denying he had received information about a possible hack of his unit.
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