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4th Jul 2022

MEPs hear testimony from Pegasus spy victims

  • Pegasus enables the attacker to turn a smartphone into a surveillance device. It can turn on the camera and microphone, and read encrypted messages (Photo: European Parliament)
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MEPs have demanded a tough EU response to the two member states revealed to have been using the Israeli spyware Pegasus to target political opponents and journalists.

"The EU's response must be vigorous," centre-right Dutch MEP Jeroen Lenaers said during a hearing with victims of the surveillance in the civil liberties committee of the European Parliament on Tuesday (1 February).

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The secret surveillance that went on in a dozen countries was revealed by an international media investigation last year.

Poland and Hungary are the only two EU countries where authorities have eventually acknowledged that the software was used to spy on its citizens.

"There will never be autocratic governments spying on their citizens in the EU," Lenaers pledged.

"What we heard today demonstrates what happens when cyber weapons that have been developed to fight terrorism are used instead to undermine democratic checks and balances," MEP Lenaers said, calling it a "very disturbing situation."

The renewed calls for action came after Hungary's data protection authority, headed by Attila Péterfalvi, an appointee of prime minister Viktor Orbán's government, on Monday said that Pegasus victims had been legitimate targets.

Péterfalvi also concluded the Hungarian state has not done anything illegal. Instead, the authority would file a criminal complaint against those who uncovered the mass surveillance for possibly mishandling data.

The two nationalist governments in Budapest and Warsaw have been under EU scrutiny for years for democratic backsliding.

However, the EU Commission has been so far tight-lipped on what it would or could do regarding the spying scandal.

Much depends on whether the commission services find legal grounds for challenging the surveillance in an EU country - since protecting national security is a member state competence.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen last year said the revelations, if proved correct, are "completely unacceptable".

Last month, liberal MEPs called for a special inquiry committee on the abuse of Pegasus spyware by EU governments against national opposition politicians, lawyers and journalists.

So far, there is only a new committee hearing, scheduled for 31 March, in the European parliament on the issue.

'My phone was hacked'

"I also became a victim of Pegasus surveillance," Hungarian journalist Szabolcs Panyi, working with the investigative website Direkt36, who was part of the team uncovering the mass surveillance told MEPs.

"When my phone was hacked back in 2019, I was investigating Russian influence operations in Hungary and how the Orbán government does very little to counter the threat of Russian espionage that endangers the security of the Nato and EU community," he said.

Pegasus enables the attacker to turn a smartphone into a surveillance device. It can turn on the camera and microphone, and read encrypted messages.

Panyi added that it was especially concerning that whenever he sent an official request for comment to Hungarian authorities, it was followed up by someone hacking into his phone through Pegasus.

Polish prosecutor Ewa Wrzosek was spied on by her government after she launched an investigation in 2020 as to whether the presidential election might endanger the health of voters during the height of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"There was no legal or factual basis to authorise the surveillance of me and others, and the secret services who did so committed a crime," Wrzosek said. "All use of Pegasus is illegal according to current Polish law," she added.

"The EU cannot credibly condemn human rights violations in the rest of the world, while turning a blind eye to problems at home," she said, adding the phone hacking is proof of "collapsing democracy" in Poland.

'Violation of EU law'

Last week, Hungarian journalists who have been targeted by surveillance filed the first lawsuits against the state.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) is taking legal action on behalf of six clients, including Panyi, with the Hungarian authorities, the EU Commission, the European Court of Human Rights and Israel.

According to HCLU, the spying on Belgian student activist Adrien Beauduin, who was studying in Hungary at the time of his surveillance, is a violation of EU law, and it has filed a complaint with the commission.

"The use of the secret services to serve those in power rather than the nation as a whole is appallingly familiar in central and eastern Europe," Ádám Remport, a HCLU expert on surveillance issues said.

"It is unacceptable that the operations of the national security services, which are necessarily carried out in secret, should become a tool of oppression rather than a means of protecting citizens," he added.

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