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31st Mar 2023

Pegasus spyware makers grilled by MEPs

  • NSO said it does not operate the Pegasus system itself, and does not collect information about the customers and who they monitor (Photo: EUobserver)
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MEPs quizzed a top official from the controversial spyware makers, the Israeli NSO Group on Tuesday (21 June), who shed little light on EU governments' use of its Pegasus spyware.

The special inquiry committee was set up in March after revelations that the spyware is used widely in Europe against EU leaders such as French president Emmanuel Macron, and Spain's premier Pedro Sanchez.

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The list of spyware victims include opposition politicians in Poland, journalists in Hungary, and some MEPs and even EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders.

The Polish and Hungarian governments have acknowledged using Pegasus, and Hungarian authorities recently found no wrongdoing in the government surveillance against journalists.

NSO Group has said that they only sell to governments fighting terrorism and crime, and they investigate credible allegations.

"We sell the system to save lives, we don't have access to the intelligence," Chaim Gelfand, the general counsel and chief compliance officer of the NSO Group said on Tuesday.

Gelfand said that NSO only sells to governments with approval with Israeli authorities.

He said NSO does not operate the Pegasus system itself, is determined that products are used lawfully, and does not collect information about the customers and who they monitor.

Gelfand argued that NSO's Pegasus is unique in that it targets specific phones to track, and that the alternative is mass surveillance.

"Pegasus is not a mass surveillance tool," Gelfand said.

He said that data is collected on specific individuals, suspected of terrorism or other serious crime, although he added that governments do not share the details they investigate.

Gelfand said "many" EU governments are their customers.

However, the NSO official refused to address issues with surveillance in specific countries, and specific customers.

The EU Commission has so far refused to investigate the misuse of Pegasus surveillance, arguing that it is in the competence of member states.

MEPs were frustrated with the lack of specific answers by Gelfand.

"Who and how was checking the governments of Hungary and Poland, how on earth could they be verified? It is known around the world that they have problems with the rule of law," liberal Polish MEP Róza Thun asked.

Gelfand argued that any technology can be misused.

He said the NSO Group checks the government in advance, "check the rule of law of the government", checking those against international standards before signing contracts.

"We will not continue to work with a customer that is targeting a journalist illegally," Gelfand said without mentioning Hungary, after being pressed by MEP Sándor Rónai, Hungarian opposition politician.

Gelfand said that NSO had ended contracts with EU governments — but did not reveal when and with whom.

He said he had overseen over 25 investigations in the last two-and-a-half years in NSO.

He added that the Israeli company terminated contracts with "over eight customers in the last several years, some of them since the publication of Pegasus papers", the media revelation of targeting of journalists, activist and opposition politicians.

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.

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European companies selling online surveillance technology have come under increasing criticism from NGOs and the European Parliament after it emerged their products had helped regimes in Iran, Egypt and Libya to clamp down on protesters.

Privacy watchdog proposes EU-ban on Pegasus-like spyware

The Brussels-based European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) warns the software could lead to an unprecedented level of intrusiveness into citizens' private lives and shake the foundations of a free-thinking society.

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