European Parliament told Pegasus Project spyware routinely used against journalists, civil society and political opposition figures

MEPs have begun their work on tackling the fundamental rights’ violations revealed over the summer by the Pegasus Project investigation
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By Andreas Rogal

Andreas Rogal is a senior journalist at the Parliament Magazine

30 Nov 2021

On Monday, the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee heard from four experts on the latest developments concerning Pegasus, the highly sophisticated spyware created by the Israeli defence and software firm NSO which “converts your phone into an extremely invasive spying device”, as one of the experts, Etienne Maynier from Amnesty International's Security Lab, put it.

The first to update LIBE members were Laurent Richard and Sandrine Rigaud of Forbidden Stories who accepted Parliament’s inaugural Daphne Caruana Galizia journalism prize in October on behalf of the consortium of over 80 journalists and Amnesty International for their work on the “Pegasus Project”.

Richard reminded the LIBE committee that while NSO has always claimed that its spyware was created to combat terrorism and organised crime, the investigation has shown - and keeps on showing, as the consortium continues its work - that it is widely used against journalists, civil society and political opposition figures.

Most starkly so and proven in countries outside the EU like Saudi Arabia, Mexico, India and San Salvador, but with indications accumulating that this is also the case inside the Union, not least because this is the place were NSO makes its biggest profits, according to documents obtained by Forbidden Stories.

An example was provided by LIBE member and newly elected Hungarian opposition leader Anna Julia Donàth (Renew), who reported on the recording of a speech behind closed doors by the speaker of Hungary’s National Assembly, László Kövér, leaked last week.

In it, Donàth explained, Kövér can be heard telling intelligence officers that the opposition was “the greatest threat to the national security of Hungary”, and that he was looking to the secret service for a “solution”.

LIBE member and newly elected Hungarian opposition leader Anna Julia Donàth, reported on the recording of a speech behind closed doors by the speaker of Hungary’s National Assembly, László Kövér, leaked last week.  In it, Donàth explained, Kövér can be heard telling intelligence officers that the opposition was “the greatest threat to the national security of Hungary”, and that he was looking to the secret service for a “solution”

Donàth added that the ruling Fidesz party politician can also be heard telling the officers that “in times of crisis, loyalty is more important than the law and the institutions”.

Last month, after initially refusing to answer the question, the Hungarian government admitted to its use of Pegasus.  However it did not release any further details.

The Green/EFA Group’s vice-chair Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield added her observations from the LIBE delegation’s recent visit to Hungary saying that journalists and opposition activists had reported that they had started “to be fearful for the first time in their home country” since the government’s Pegasus-aided surveillance had become known.

Laurent’s colleague Sandrine Rigaud told the committee about important developments across the Atlantic: last week, mobile phone giant Apple had followed earlier moves by Beta/Facebook in starting legal proceedings against NSO because, as the “Pegasus Project” investigation had shown, the spyware had exploited bugs in the former’s iMessage function and the latter’s WhatsApp application to capture mobile phones in what is known as “zero click attacks”.

Earlier in the month, the US Commerce Department had added NSO to its Entity List, effectively banning trade with the firm as US companies can now only do business with NSO if they receive explicit permission.

All LIBE members taking part in the hearing - there were no representatives of the nationalist and the far right - welcomed the action taken by the US administration and the tech giants, and demanded that the EU, and in particular the European Commission, too, take stronger action.

It was inappropriate for the Commission to be so “passive”, as LIBE veteran Sophie in t’ Veld put it, just “monitoring the situation. Well, they monitor a lot of situations. But the problem is that the Commission works not with the presumption but with the pretence of compliance” on the part of national watchdog authorities overseeing government activities, something that could not be guaranteed any more in some cases, the Dutch liberal argued

It was inappropriate for the Commission to be so “passive”, as LIBE veteran Sophie in t’ Veld put it, just “monitoring the situation. Well, they monitor a lot of situations. But the problem is that the Commission works not with the presumption but with the pretence of compliance” on the part of national watchdog authorities overseeing government activities, something that could not be guaranteed any more in some cases, the Dutch liberal argued.

Amnesty International's Etienne Maynier strongly supported the legislators’ call: “the situation will not be solved without strong state action”, he told them.

Asked which action he would recommend, Maynier called for a total moratorium on the sale of the Pegasus spyware in Europe as a short-term measure, and a regulatory framework in the medium and long term.

The idea of a ban on Pegasus was, however, called into question by the fourth expert, European Data Protection Supervisor Wojciech Wiewiórowski. “A ban on Pegasus would be nice, but not realistic”, he told the committee, adding that the Israeli government had just last week published a blacklist of countries for which the NSO would not get the necessary approval from the Ministry of Defence for selling its spyware anymore, and it “even includes two EU Member States, Poland and Hungary”.

However, for once, Pegasus is not the only spyware available and, for good measure, once a country has purchased Pegasus, NSO unfailingly washes its hands of the clients’ use of it.

Moreover, many Member States still maintain that the phrase “we don’t comment on operational activities of our intelligence services” is a justified way to answer any questions from EU institutions regarding surveillance operations, Wiewiórowski said.

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