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How European governments monitor their citizens

Diana Riba is a member of the European Parliament.

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How European governments monitor their citizens

Diana Riba is a member of the European Parliament. In October 2019, a few months after her election, the Catalan politician spoke to her colleague on the phone. A few minutes after the conversation, the employee receives another call. At the other end, he does not hear his boss again, but a recording of the previous conversation.

The politician from Spain was one of the first MEPs to realize that her mobile phone was being tapped. And, as it turned out later, with the help of the spy software Pegasus.

The controversial surveillance program of the Israeli company NSO, which is considered the market leader in the field, enables spying on smartphones and computers.

Customers are governments all over the world. The extent of worldwide espionage was made known by an international research network for the first time in the summer of 2021.

Spy programs such as Pegasus are also used in the EU to monitor politicians, members of the opposition, journalists, civil rights activists or government officials - often illegally.

Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld calls the scandal "Europe's Watergate" in a preliminary report by the committee of inquiry into the use of Pegasus and similar surveillance and spy software in the European Parliament.

Parliamentarians themselves seem amazed at the scale of the Pegasus affair since the committee began work in April. "The spyware scandal is not a series of isolated national abuse cases, but a full-fledged European issue," says the report.

It is known that 14 states in the EU have bought the software from NSO. It was used illegally in Poland and Hungary, Greece and Spain. Cyprus and Bulgaria serve as hubs within the EU for their export.

Pegasus is also used in Germany: NSO's customers are said to include the Federal Criminal Police Office and the Federal Intelligence Service, which spy on mobile phones to track down suspected terrorists and other criminals. However, this has neither been officially confirmed nor denied. Because the use of Pegasus is also questionable in this country, because the software can obviously do much more than German law allows. The invitation to a hearing in Brussels in mid-November was accepted by no one from the federal government apart from an investigative journalist from Netzpolitik.org.

The German authorities are not the only ones who refuse to cooperate with the committee. This is always justified with the protection of national security. Other governments in which cases of abuse are known also block the investigation.

Hungary is one of the first countries involved in the European espionage scandal. The government is said to have used Pegasus specifically to monitor journalists, whistleblowers or government critics. 300 people are said to be affected.

"In Hungary, Pegasus is part of the systematic control of the media and the restriction of freedom of expression by the ruling Fidesz party," Belgian MEP Saskia Bricmont told WELT. She sits on the committee of inquiry for the Green Group.

In Poland, too, the use of Pegasus is part of a system aimed at controlling citizens, for example to spy on political opponents. But both countries do not give the committee of inquiry any information.

While Poland and Hungary have long been in conflict with Brussels over rule of law problems, the wiretapping scandals in Spain and Greece are particularly sensitive. In Greece, where, according to Bricmont, it is more about political influence, business interests and nepotism, more than 30 politicians and journalists have been illegally monitored.

There was a parliamentary inquiry and Greece wants to ban the sale of spyware technology, but the cases remained unsolved. At the beginning of November, a group of MEPs was in Greece to get a first-hand impression.

Bricmont calls the case in Spain particularly shocking: Since the independence referendum in 2017, the secret service has been using Pegasus to monitor Catalan politicians, some of their family members and other people associated with the independence movement – ​​a total of 65.

“The privacy of innocent people was violated, private conversations and data were spied on. It's very dangerous," says Bricmont. "Catalan Gate" is the largest espionage case ever uncovered in the EU. But the government in Madrid does not seem to have any interest in clarifying "Catalan Gate".

A hearing in the European Parliament on Tuesday caused controversy because some participants had been uninvited at short notice. "After half a year, no court in Spain has opened an investigation to clarify Catalan Gate," said Andreu Van den Eynde, a victim of the wiretapping.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and two other ministers themselves became victims of Pegasus espionage. Morocco is suspected, but the Sánchez government has not provided any evidence.

It is also unclear whether there was a connection between the spy attacks on the government and the Catalan independence politicians. A delegation trip to Spain continues to be blocked - due to political pressure from several major political groups in Parliament, who apparently want to prevent this.

Now the members of the committee of inquiry are trying to extend the mandate by three months beyond April, so that they can then also travel to Spain and Hungary.

The espionage cases reach into the European Parliament itself: at least five MPs, mainly Catalans and one Greek, were monitored by their governments with Pegasus. According to the report, the EU Commission was also the victim of wiretapping attacks.

But according to the parliamentarians, the Brussels authorities have so far been inactive, hiding behind the pretext of not being allowed to interfere in national affairs.

The European Parliament is not calling for a ban on Pegasus or comparable spy software. It also has no possibility of sanctions. Rather, existing laws such as the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and privacy protection laws really have to be complied with.

There must also be rules for the export and common standards for the use of spy software. The definition of national security is so vague that it is misused, for example in the form of politically motivated wiretapping measures. The EU Commission must take tougher action.

The committee of inquiry will deliver its final findings and recommendations next spring. Whether he has enough influence to change anything is uncertain as long as the governments concerned do not cooperate. However, the committee can put pressure on the member states – and Bricmont is convinced that they are already feeling this.

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