Spain: 2021 spyware attack targeted prime minister’s phone

MADRID (AP) — Spanish officials said on Monday that the mobile phones of the prime minister and defense minister were infected last year with the Pegasus spyware, which is only available to government agencies as part of of an unauthorized transaction.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s cellphone was hacked twice in May 2021, and Defense Minister Margarita Robles’ device was targeted once the following month, Presidency Minister Félix Bolaños said on Monday during of a hastily called press conference.

He said the breaches resulted in a significant amount of data being obtained and reports detailing the hack were transferred to Spain’s national court for further investigation.

“We have no doubt that this is unlawful and unauthorized interference,” Bolaños said. “It comes from agencies outside the state and has no judicial authorization.”

Spain’s socialist-led government is under pressure to explain why the cellphones of dozens of people linked to the separatist movement in the northeastern region of Catalonia were infected with Pegasus between 2017 and 2020, according to Citizen Lab, a group of cybersecurity experts affiliated with the University. of Toronto.

The revelations concern at least 65 people, including elected officials, lawyers and activists, targeted by software from two Israeli companies, Candiru and NSO Group, the developer of Pegasus.

Spyware silently infiltrates phones or other devices to harvest data and potentially spy on their owners.

The Catalan regional government has accused Spain’s National Intelligence Center, or CNI, of spying on separatists and said relations with national authorities were “on hold” until a full explanation is provided and officials be punished.

The conservative People’s Party, or PP, was in power in 2017 when Catalan separatists declared independence following an unauthorized referendum, although no further steps were taken to enforce the declaration. The PP remained in power until mid-2018, when it was ousted by Sánchez in a parliamentary vote.

ERC, Catalonia’s main political party and a crucial government ally has called for the resignation of Robles, the defense minister. But the spy scandal has exposed them to pressure from more radical separatists, who are calling for an end to support for Sánchez’s left-center coalition in the national parliament.

The central government has tried to temper their concerns with promises of full transparency, announcements of plans for an internal investigation by the country’s intelligence agency and a separate investigation by Spain’s ombudsman.

A special parliamentary committee on state secrets has also been set up and the CNI chief is expected to be questioned by lawmakers later this week, although discussions on state security issues are not supposed to be made public. .

Aritz Parra, Associated Press