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28th Jan 2023

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Spyware scandals in Europe are 'much worse than Watergate'

  • The Israeli company NSO Group, has sold Pegasus smartphone spyware and other products to 22 end-users in 14 member states, including Poland, Hungary, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium (Photo: Luke Porter)
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Electronic spying on citizens isn't the preserve of autocratic states alone. Journalists and politicians are also being spied on by several European governments, including Spain, Greece, Hungary and Poland, according to Sophie in 't Veld MEP, rapporteur of the European Parliament's PEGA-committee.

"The European Commission is very strict regarding threats to democracy elsewhere in the world, but when it comes to its members, it prefers to remain quiet," says the Dutch MEP, who is parliament's lead investigator on the use of spyware in Europe.

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The illicit use of spyware in Europe is comparable to the Watergate scandal, the wiretapping case which led to the resignation of US president Richard Nixon in 1974, "but much, much worse", she said in an interview with EUobserver magazine.

"It's not a matter of a few isolated incidents where some governments have crossed the line. It's a widespread system that centres around Europe."

Not all member states use spyware illicitly, but "all member states have spyware at their disposal, whether they admit it or not," in 't Veld warns.

Governments operate alongside "an impenetrable maze of persons, locations, connections, ownership structures, letterbox companies, ever-changing corporate names" and purchase spyware, often through middlemen, "from criminals or quasi-criminals," she adds.

Israeli spyware companies dominate the sector and have spread their operations across Europe, taking advantage of lax export enforcement, and favourable tax arrangements, in Ireland and other countries.

In 't Veld's report, presented in November and to be finalised next year, points to the Polish government's use of material extracted from telephones for smear campaigns against journalists. The Hungarian government used spyware on at least 300 telephones belonging to NGOs and individuals connected to American-Hungarian businessman George Soros.

Top-level politicians in Greece have used spyware to cover up corruption, and the Spanish government has used spyware on 65 Catalans, supposedly in connection with the independence movement.

14 member states involved

A central player has been the Israeli company NSO Group, which has sold Pegasus and other products to 22 end-users in 14 member states, including Poland, Hungary, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium.

The US has blacklisted the group and is developing new spyware legislation. Victims have filed legal complaints. Tech giants like Microsoft and Apple have launched legal challenges against spyware companies, the latter describing the NSO Group as "amoral 21st-century mercenaries" who "target, attack, and harm…for their own commercial gain."

But the European response has been muted. The European Council has yet to respond and the European Commission, which was itself hacked, has "absolutely no interest" in pursuing the question, in 't Veld says.

Europol, the EU's law enforcement agency, has so far declined to investigate the matter, claiming it is an exclusively national matter. But EU governments have "stonewalled" in 't Veld's efforts, citing 'national security reasons.'

"Citizens have the right to know what's going on," she said.

"But as soon as national security is invoked, all doors close. It's become an excuse for lawlessness." Out of all the EU's 27 governments that she has sent questions to, only Austria, Cyprus, and Poland have responded, and then only "in the most evasive terms."

Partly because of this, there is a lack of hard evidence.

Modern spyware can be used to take complete control of a mobile phone with hardly a trace, and even if it is detected, it is nearly impossible to prove who was responsible for the attack.

"The list of victims of spyware tells the real story," she underlines. "If you have nine hundred pieces of a puzzle of a thousand, you have a good idea of the whole picture."

Those victims who have mounted legal challenges find that judges and prosecutors refuse to investigate and put the burden of proof on the victims. This leaves victims defenceless against state power. All vital checks and balances of a democratic society are disabled.

"Democracy isn't about elections. Russia has elections. Democracy is about countervailing power," in 't Veld says. "Once it's gone, democracy ends."

This article first appeared in EUobserver's magazine, Digital EU: the Good, the Bad — and the Ugly, which you can now read in full online.
Catalan spyware victims demand justice

Victims of the widening spyware scandal in Spain are demanding justice and reparations, following the revelations that journalists, lawyers, civil society and politicians had been targeted.

Opinion

The Greek Watergate

In the European Parliament hearing into espionage against Greek politicians and reporters, the spied-upon journalists recounted their experiences — but the non-answers provided by the Greek government official were embarrassing, confrontative, and institutionally vacant.

Pegasus spyware makers grilled by MEPs

"We will not continue to work with a customer that is targeting a journalist illegally," Chaim Gelfand, chief compliance officer of NSO Group told MEPs — but shed little light on EU governments' use of its Pegasus spyware.

Boom in software spying on remote workers, MEPs hear

Companies are increasingly using software to spy on employees working remotely, said Polish computer forensics analyst Maciej Broniarz. "The market for highly intrusive spyware is snowballing," Broniarz told MEPs.

Digital EU: the Good, the Bad — and the Ugly

The European Union has impressive digital ambitions and an equally-impressive array of initiatives, proposals, directives and regulations, all designed to make the bloc 'fit for the digital age'. But what do they all mean — and will they all work?

Vestager: 'Technology must not steal our time'

Given the rapid pace of digitalisation, the EU has rushed to set and regulate digital standards. Many new initiatives are led by Margrethe Vestager, EU commissioner for competition, who says the focus must be on making technology work for people.

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