18th May 2022

EU needs to step up espionage defences, experts warn

  • The Pegasus spy software targeted poliicians, journalists and activists - and was only uncovered by investigative journalists in July (Photo: European Parliament)
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Experts on Thursday (9 September) warned MEPs that the EU should step up its defences against espionage and foreign interference as it is currently a weak and attractive target.

Margarita Robles Carrillo, professor of public international law at the University of Granada told the special committee on foreign interference that the EU has only seen the "tip of the iceberg" in terms of foreign interference.

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She said the EU is also vulnerable also because it has fewer means of defence, limited scope of power, and there needs to be a consensus and agreement between EU institutions and member states for decisions to happen.

It is also an attractive target because any action against the EU will have greater consequences and a bigger impact in member states too, she added.

Carrillo called for a coordinated EU policy, and not to rely on member states.

"We must recognise the scope and the nature of the problem, as a problem that effect the structure of member states, the heart of the EU, the spinal column of the EU," she said.

"We need to understand the need for a clear legal basis and necessary authority and legitimacy," she added.

She said that there needs to be an intergovernmental commitment to denounce activities within the EU.

The discussion in the committee on Thursday came after a group of journalists in July, with the help of Amnesty International, uncovered an Israeli-made spy software, Pegasus, being used by various governments to target journalists, politicians, activists and politicians - including French president Emmanuel Macron.

Journalists Laurent Richard and Sandrine Rigaud, who participated in uncovering Pegasus, said the tool was used against people considered to pose a threat to powers in place, and there is no mechanism to protect citizens against it.

US help or hindrance

The special committee is tasked with coming up with suggestions on how the EU could better equip itself with tools against foreign interference. However, such a task is very difficult, as member states have to agree on any new tools that the bloc could use against foreign actors.

Robert Dover, head of criminology and sociology at the University of Hull, pointed out that EU member states themselves also participate in spying within the bloc.

He cited the example of Danish cooperation with the US National Security Agency between 2012 and 2014, as the NSA was allowed to use a Danish routing station in an operation that also targeted high-profile politicians, such as Germany's Angela Merkel.

Dover said member states cooperate with the US, sometimes in return for short-term trade-offs.

He said that it is not only the "highly capable adversary, not only classic adversaries, Russia, China for example but also competitive friends" such as the US, that has been party to foreign interference.

"It has relied EU members cheating on each other, taking the short-term pay off for the benefit of information," he told MEPs.

He suggested the way to de-incentivise member states from such acts is to reduce the reliance on the US, and the attraction of US capabilities, by developing the EU's own.

'Surveillance capitalism' model

Dover also said intelligence work nowadays is mostly data warehousing of information to "improve the behavioural models how state and individuals will act and behave" - and how to encounter that.

He pointed out that social media platforms and large US tech giants such as Alphabet, the owner of Google, and Facebook are in the same business of surveillance capitalism.

Answering questions from MEPs, he said the "so-called 'hybrid warfare tools' have been incredibly successful", where adversaries target the weak point of the other actor.

"We have seen strategic shocks, such as Brexit," he cited an example.

EU condemns 'Pegasus' spyware use on journalists

An international investigation over the weekend by 17 media organisations, led by the Paris-based non-profit journalism group Forbidden Stories, said 180 journalists had been targeted by Israeli spyware. Among them were Hungarian reporters.

Vestager not involved in Danish spy scandal, says office

Margrethe Vestager was interior and deputy prime minister during the reported US-led Danish spying scandal of top European allies. But her office points out that Danish intelligence services are overseen by its ministry of defence and justice.

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