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The EU Watergate? Pegasus spyware scandal grows

November 8, 2022

Revelations about reported surveillance of journalists and politicians with spyware continue to surface in the European Union. Four EU member states have been accused of illegitimate snooping.

Pegasus Spyware on the screen of a laptop monitor
Pegasus spyware has been used against journalists and political opponents worldwideImage: Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva/dpa/picture alliance

Would you like to browse the contents of a cellphone in the interest of national security? If you have millions of dollars and are a government agency, you could try approaching the NSO Group, an Israeli company that has sold its Pegasus spyware to scrupulous governments worldwide, and its products in 14 EU states, according to the European Parliament.

Pegasus infiltrates mobile phones to extract data or activate a camera or microphone to spy on owners. The company says the tech is designed to fight crime and terrorism, but it has been found by investigators to have been used on journalists, activists, dissidents and politicians worldwide.

In the past eighteen months, Hungary, Poland, Spain and Greece have all been accused of using Pegasus or equivalent technology against citizens or politicians.

Spyware 'integral' to systematic oppression in Poland, Hungary

In Poland and Hungary, use of such spyware is an "integral element" of a "system, which is designed to control and even oppress the citizens — that is, critics of the government, opposition, journalists, whistleblowers," said Dutch EU lawmaker Sophie in 't Veld on Tuesday, as she presented a damning interim European Parliamant report.

The liberal politician led the report as part of a committee of EU parliamentarians conducting an inquiry. She has visited Israel, Hungary, Poland, Greece and Cyprus so far and has called for an immediate moratorium on such spyware pending proper regulation.

For Greece, where allegations of surveillance of opposition politicians and journalists continue to surface, the situation was less severe but there were also signs of systematic use "as part of a political strategy," she said.

In Spain, where many pro-Catalan independence figures but also Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez were reportedly targeted, there were "strong indications" that politicians and others were being watched without an appropriate serious national security justification, the politician noted.

Dutch EU Parliamentarian Sophie in t Veld
Dutch EU Parliamentarian Sophie in 't Veld was unsparing in her criticism of Europe's lack of action on spyware useImage: Christoph Hardt/Geisler-Fotopres/picture alliance

'Full-blown European affair'

While not all countries were suspected of abuse, "we can safely assume that all EU member states have purchased one or more commercial spyware products," the draft report, seen by DW, states. Cyprus and Bulgaria may also exercise a role as export hubs, the report continued, noting, "Europe has been the hub for exports to dictatorships and oppressive regimes, such as Libya, Egypt and Bangladesh."

In 't Veld acknowledged on Tuesday that the findings were based largely on the work of journalists and investigators, and were not confirmed by governments, which she said had for the most part been uncooperative. Nonetheless, the general picture was — in her view — clear enough.

"The spyware scandal is not a series of isolated national cases of abuse, but a full-blown European affair," the draft report stated, slamming it as "Europe’s Watergate" — a reference to the 1970s US political scandal that led to the downfall of then President Richard Nixon.

Political fallout over Pegasus ongoing

Unlike Watergate, the revelations in Europe have not triggered the demise of any European leaders, though a number of countries have opened judicial investigations into use of the technology.

For the Spanish prime minister and his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis, they have, however, have been highly embarrassing.

The Spanish government, for instance, fired the director of its top intelligence agency in May as a result. The head of the Greek intelligence service also stepped down.

On Monday, after months of pressure punctuated by intermittent fresh allegations, Mitsotakis announced plans to ban the sale of spyware technology.

Marantzidis Nikos, a professor at Greece’s University of Macedonia, voiced dispair while speaking with DW, "We hear lies, lies, lies ... all the time and we don’t know what really happened."

"Greek society cannot understand the real depth of the affair, it's an organized system to hide and to protect the prime minister, who should be bearing his responsibility,” the political scientist said.

Toward a moratorium?

European parliamentarians are not alone in calling for a halt on the sale of the technology. Amnesty International (AI), whose experts were involved in the major 2021 investigation that thrust NSO Group's technology into the international spotlight, petitioned UN states to back a global moratorium on surveillance technology last month.

But according to Chloe Berthelemy of the non-governmental organization European Digital Rights (EDRi), even an EU moratorium doesn't seem likely for the moment. "Unfortunately due to the EU's governance system, the success of this initiative will ultimately depend on the member states' good will to cooperate and comply with the rules," the senior policy advisor told DW in an email.

The European Commission typically shies away from getting involved in questions of domestic national security — and was lambasted in Tuesday's draft report for inaction.

But the EU executive branch actually has the power of legislative initiative here, Berthelemy said, and could already take member states to task under existing law, or try to introduce new EU-wide rules.

When it comes to the EU capitals, they need to start answering questions: "Which products do they buy? From whom? On which occasion? Who are their main targets? What's the process to authorize the deployment of such tools?" Berthelemy summarized.

The European Parliament is due to finish its inquiry in March and will likely keep up the pressure. "Governments — all of them, collectively — are trying to sweep it under the rug," in 't Veld said. "We’ll make sure it stays in the spotlight."

Pegasus: the invisible spy

Edited by: Jon Shelton