‘Catalan politicians bugged with Pegasus’

Dozens of Catalan politicians and proponents of an independent Catalonia may have been bugged by espionage software from the Israeli company NSO Group. Among the targets was Pere Aragonès, the president of the northeastern Spanish region. Several predecessors would also have been secretly spied on. NSO Group denies all allegations against him.

That writes the British newspaper The Guardian on the basis of research by the Citizen Lab of Amnesty International.

Dozens of Catalan politicians bugged for years

In addition to leading Catalan politicians, members of the European Parliament, legislators, lawyers, activists, journalists and civil society organizations have been tapped, as well as their relatives. According to Citizen Lab researchers, at least 65 people were involved, 63 of whom were walking around with mobile devices contaminated with Pegasus.

Pegasus is an eavesdropping program developed by NSO Group. The spy software collects digital correspondence (WhatsApp, SMS), documents, photos, videos, location data and contact phone numbers. The software of the Israeli security company can also record telephone conversations, listen to the microphone, take screenshots and take pictures and videos unnoticed.

According to the Citizen Lab, virtually all wiretapping scandals took place between 2017 and 2020. In 2017, it failed to make Catalonia an independent, self-governing region. Fake text and WhatsApp messages have been used to infect the target’s smartphones.

Victims were champions of an independent Catalonia

Amnesty International’s research lab says current Catalan President Pere Aragonès has been bugged with Pegasus’ spy software. So are Quim Torra, the regional president from 2018 to 2020, Carles Puigdemont, the man who was the face of the failed independence attempt, and Artur Mas, the former president of the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT).

Furthermore, 31 regional MPs and several lawyers were targeted by the wiretapping. What the victims have in common is that they were all in favour of an independent Catalonia.

Amnesty wants ‘thorough and independent investigation’

Citizen Lab cannot say who gave the order to wiretap Catalan politicians. The researchers point out that Pegasus is only sold to governments. “While we do not currently attribute this operation to specific government agencies, circumstantial evidence points to a strong link with the government of Spain, including the nature of the victims and targets, the timing, and the fact that Spain is reportedly a government customer of NSO Group. ,” said CitizenLab.

Amnesty International wants the Spanish government to clarify the ties with NSO Group. The advocacy group also insists that “thorough and independent investigation” be conducted into the use of Pegasus by the said politicians. “The use, sale and transfer of this surveillance technology must be temporarily halted to prevent further human rights violations,” said Likhita Banerji, technology and human rights researcher at Amnesty.

NSO Group denies allegations

A spokesperson for NSO Group denies all allegations. “NSO continues to be targeted by a number of politically motivated advocacy groups such as Citizen Lab and Amnesty to produce inaccurate and unsubstantiated reports based on vague and incomplete information.”

According to him, the Israeli security company has repeatedly cooperated in government investigations. “However, the information presented in relation to these allegations is again inaccurate and could not be associated with NSO products for technological and contractual reasons,” the spokesperson told The Guardian.

The Spanish Ministry of the Interior states that neither the ministry nor the national police have ever engaged with NSO Group. “All interceptions of communications are conducted under the judicial authority and in full respect of the law,” said a spokesman for the department.

European Parliament to investigate Pegasus’s role in wiretapping European politicians

The European Parliament announced earlier this month that it has set up a committee of inquiry into Pegasus. This committee is led by the Dutchman Sophie in ‘t Veld  (D66). “There is clear evidence that governments are abusing Pegasus against the democratic opposition,” she said, announcing her role as chair of the inquiry.

Together with 37 other MEPs, In ‘t Veld will look at the extent to which the tapping software has been used to spy on European politicians and other prominent figures. Evidence for this has recently surfaced. Reuters news agency reported last week that European Commissioner Didier Reynders and at least four other members of the European Commission were targets of NSO Group’s espionage software.

The inquiry committee will present its findings early next year.

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