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Catalan separatists to sue Spain over spying

April 20, 2022

Catalan politicians and activists announced legal action in several countries, following reports that the government in Madrid used Pegasus spyware manufactured by the notorious Israeli firm NSO Group to monitor them.

An Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group
A Spanish government spokeswoman said there is no illegal spying in SpainImage: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Iamges

Catalan separatist politicians and activists announced a legal offensive in several countries Tuesday against Spain and the Israeli owners of NSO Group, manufacturers of Pegasus spyware.

One alleged target, the regional head of the northeastern region of Catalonia, Pere Aragones, said relations with Madrid would remain strained until the allegations were properly investigated.

"A democratic state does not spy on its citizens...a democratic state does not listen in on the private conversations of its political opponents," Aragones said. 

Aragones and his three predecessors, Quim Torra, Carles Puigdemont and Artur Mas, were all reportedly subject to surveillance.

Puigdemont, the former Catalan regional chief who fled Spain in 2017 to avoid prosecution for sedition after he permitted an independence referendum banned by Madrid to go ahead while he was in power in Catalonia, said he would take legal action against those responsible in Spain, Germany, France, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

Spanish government spokeswoman Isabel Rodriguez said there was no illegal spying in the country.

"There are issues which, because they pertain to national security, are protected by law and are classified material," Rodriguez said.

Barcelona also called on Madrid to punish those responsible for the alleged surveillance.

Where are the allegations of spying coming from?

A University of Toronto team of cybersecurity experts affiliated with Citizen Lab announced on Monday what it said may be the largest known cluster of hacking cases associated with Pegasus spyware.

Citizen Lab began investigating allegations of spyware among Catalan separatists after researchers working with the instant message service WhatsApp, owned by Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, observed several Catalan legislators had been hacked.

A court in Barcelona opened an investigation when two of the lawmakers allegedly filed a lawsuit against the government.

Manufactured by the Israeli cyber defense company NSO Group, Pegasus can implant spyware undetected on phones to harvest data and make remote use of various functions such as the microphone and video features of a modern smartphone.

Citizen Lab claims at least 65 prominent figures in the Catalan independence movement were targeted by Pegasus spyware of similar malicious code created by another Israeli defense technology firm, Candiru.

In the cases of Catalan separatists, Citizen Lab said it had found "a strong nexus with one or more entities within the Spanish government."

What is the substance of the lawsuits?

The lawsuits against Spain, but also Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, were announced at a press conference at the European Parliament in Brussels. The European subsidiary of NSO Group is headquartered in Luxembourg.

The lawsuits allege Candiru's malicious contribution permits third parties to spoof a phone's owner to send out messages and emails.

Both NSO Group and Candiru have found themselves in the cross hairs of litigation from major technology firms and criticism from rights groups.

Both companies say their sole clients are nation-states and assert their cyber weapons are designed to be deployed against criminals and terrorists.

ar/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)