21st Feb 2024

Phone spying scandal exposes 'impotent' Europe, says lead MEP

  • EU states are reportedly targeting their citizens, including journalists and opposition politicians, with spyware (Photo: Jonas Smith)
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Democracy in Europe is being undermined by alleged government-led spyware on citizens, journalists and politicians, says a leading MEP.

"When it comes to defending the most important thing, democracy and freedom, Europe is weak and impotent," said Dutch liberal MEP Sophie In't Veld on Tuesday (8 November), who is demanding an "immediate moratorium" on the software throughout the EU.

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The MEP is tasked with drafting a report following a months-long investigation by a special European Parliament committee into the use of spyware in member states.

The committee probe was launched earlier this year following revelations that an Israeli-made spyware known as Pegasus had been used against journalists, lawyers, and politicians, and others.

That inquiry has since expanded to cover other types of spyware, including Predator.

On Tuesday she presented a 159-page draft report on the abuse throughout some 17 EU states — placing extra emphasis on Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Poland, and Spain.

However, In't Veld's draft had not yet been discussed among other members of the committee. And its chair, Dutch centre-right Jeroen Lenaers, said her report should not be understood as the conclusions or the position of the committee as a whole.

"Only the final report and recommendations, as adopted at the end of our period of activity, represents the position of the European Parliament as a whole," he said.

Although the final report is set to be finalised sometime next year, the draft still provides an initial sobering assessment of how governments are said to use national security as an excuse to pry on their own citizens.

"All of them use the cloak of national security to create an area of lawlessness," said In't Veld.

Similar observations were made by the EU's data protection supervisor, Wojciech Wiewiórowski.

"If we use national security as the reason for using this kind of software, we should first of all, define where is the scope of national security and secondly, give the safeguards," he told EUobserver, last month.

Some of the spyware victims of the digital dragnet include political opposition leaders in Poland, Spain and Greece.

Among them is Poland's Civic Platform senator Krzysztof Brejza, who was targeted in 2019 during the Polish parliamentary election campaign.

Others include journalists, government critics and whistleblowers.

But the parliament inquiry is also being stonewalled by national authorities, who either refuse to participate or offer only courtesy responses in a probe that is forced to rely on media outlets and other public sources.

Poland and Hungary are highlighted as among the most abusive — with both already under tight EU scrutiny for weakening democratic institutions like the independence of the judiciary.

The two had purchased Pegasus in 2017 following national leadership meetings with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, says the report. Some 300 people are said to have been Pegasus victims in Hungary alone.

Greece is also tied up in the scandal, following reports of Predator spying on journalists and attempts to install spyware on the GSM of opposition Pasok party leader, Nikos Androulakis. At least 33 are said to have found traces of the spyware on their phones in Greece.

The issue has seen the nephew of the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who was also his top aide and government insider, resign over the affair.

Spain has been accused of targeting 65 people with Pegasus, including Catalan politicians and members of their families.

Cyprus (along with Bulgaria) has been designated by the report as a Europe's spyware export-hub, while Luxembourg ranks as where vendors do "their financial business."

Intellexa, a firm involved in the Predator scandal in Greece, is also registered in Ireland. Others are in Malta, where some of the owners are said to have also obtained so-called Golden Passports. This includes Intellexa's founder, Tal Dilian, an Israeli who received Maltese citizenship in 2017.

The affair has led In't Veld to call for a European Council to convene a special summit dedicated to the abuse of spyware, as well as conference to discuss reform of the governance of the European Union.

She also accused the European Commission from "shying away from enforcement".

For its part, the European Commission say its up to state institutions to make sure that spyware is not abused and that it had introduced policy in its media freedom act to ensure journalists are not targeted.

"What is important to keep in mind generally is national security is a member state competence, so when guaranteeing national security member states must apply relevant EU law including the case law of the European Court of Justice," said a commission spokesperson.

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