13th Apr 2024

Inquiry launches into Polish ex-government's 'Pegasus' spying

  • The Israeli company NSO Group has sold Pegasus smartphone spyware to 14 EU member states, including Poland, Hungary, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium (Photo: EUobserver)
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Electronic political spying moves centre-stage in Poland on Monday (19 February), as a parliamentary investigation opens an inquiry into the use of Israeli Pegasus spyware, purchased by the country's former nationalist-populist Law & Justice government in 2017.

The 11-strong cross-party parliamentary committee headed by Magdalena Sroka, a former police official from Donald Tusk's ruling coalition Third Way group, has been tasked with examining the legality and purpose of spyware use in Poland — as well as whether the funding of the purchase, from Israel's NSO group, was in line with government rules.

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It is already known that the spyware was used by the then-ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party against its political opponents. The current prime minister and former EU Council president Tusk last week revealed that the spyware had been used not only to monitor PiS's political opponents —but also PiS members of the party's leadership suspected of disloyalty.

Tusk has so far declined to provide details, but his statement has sent ripples of concern through PiS ranks.

PiS has four deputies on the parliamentary committee who will do their best to persuade Polish public opinion that the purchase and use of Pegasus was not only legal but served to bolster Poland's security.

Jarosław Kaczynski, the PiS leader, has already gone on record to say that his officials did nothing wrong. "Almost all civilised countries have such appliances," he told a press conference last week.

However, the doubts surrounding the use of spyware in Poland and Hungary led the NSO group to suspend its licence for Pegasus for the two countries in the autumn of 2021.

Parliamentary committees both in the European Parliament and in Poland's senate last year declared the practice to have been illegal.

The present investigation, now getting underway, has the right to summon witnesses.

"We want to find out who was responsible for the decision to use Pegasus," says Joanna Kluzik Rostkowska from Tusk's ruling Civic Coalition.

And the committee seems set to aim high, by putting PiS leaders on the stand including Kaczyński and the former interior minister Mariusz Kaminski.

If the committee deems that the law was broken then state prosecutors would step in to bring criminal charges. It is already clear that the 25 million złotys (€6m) Pegasus cost Poland came from a special fund held by the justice ministry. The fund was originally designed to compensate victims of crime and the Justice Ministry bent their own rules to fund the purchase.

But there is more at stake than just punishing those guilty of breaking the law, according to experts.

Wojciech Klicki, from the Panoptycon think tank, which is leading the fight in Poland to protect privacy in the face of new technologies, expects the parliamentary committee to determine who was responsible for the decisions to use Pegasus in Poland. He also wants the inquiry to lead to the punishment of security officials who used spyware at the behest of their political masters as a lesson for the security services in the future.

But he is less optimistic that the parliamentary committee will set in train procedures which will ensure that in the future spyware will be used to counter serious crime and terrorism, but will not be abused in the future by the country's politicians and security services.

The danger is that the investigative committee which starts work on Monday will concentrate on naming those guilty for the abuse of spyware and scoring political points.

But it could avoid the more complex question of how to protect the right to privacy in the future from secret spyware while at the same time establishing the right for security services to be able to use these systems to fight crime and terrorism under effective civilian and judicial control.

Poland's lawyers, aware that the misuse of spyware risks destroying existing guarantees of client confidentiality, are demanding that controls over such digital software be put into place and journalists are also aware that their guarantees of secrecy of sources are endangered by the new technology.

Author bio

Krzysztof Bobinski is a board member of the Society of Journalists, in Warsaw, an independent NGO. He was the Financial Times correspondent in Warsaw from 1976 to 2000. He worked at the Polish Institute of Foreign Affairs (PISM) and was co-chair of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum.

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