Catalans hacked to launch a legal offer on the use of spyware

MADRID (AP) — Politicians and separatist activists in Catalonia announced on Tuesday a legal offensive in half a dozen countries against the Spanish state and the Israeli owners of controversial spyware allegedly used to spy on them.

The head of the Catalan and Spanish-speaking northeast region also announced that relations with Spain’s central authorities will remain strained until Madrid carries out a full investigation and punishes those responsible for the alleged surveillance.

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

Citizen Lab, a team of cybersecurity experts affiliated with the University of Toronto, had revealed a day before what is believed to be the largest group of hacking attempts documented to date with Pegasus, a program that silently infiltrates phones to harvest their data and potentially spy on their owners.

At least 65 figures in the Catalan independence camp – including elected officials, civil society leaders, lawyers and their relatives – have been targeted by Pegasus of the NSO group or other programs created by Candiru, another Israeli technology company. Candiru’s spyware potentially allows third parties to impersonate the owner of the phone to send messages or emails, according to Citizen Lab.

NSO Group, the owner of Pegasus, and Candiru have come under fire from global rights groups for infringing on user privacy and are facing lawsuits from some of the world’s biggest tech companies.

The companies claim their software is only sold to government agencies to target criminals and terrorists. Regarding alleged spying on Catalan separatists, Citizen Lab said its research had found evidence of a “close connection to one or more entities within the Spanish government”.

“There’s no spying here, there’s no eavesdropping unless it’s under the cover of the law,” government spokeswoman Isabel Rodríguez said on Tuesday. a weekly press briefing.

When asked if the country’s intelligence services, known as CNI, had contracted the use of Pegasus, Rodríguez said: “There are issues that, because they relate to national security, are protected by law and are classified documents.”

Some of the allegedly targeted politicians and activists turned up at the same time for a press conference at the European Parliament in Brussels, where they pledged to take legal action to gain transparency in Spain, but also in France, Germany, in Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg, where some of the alleged hacking took place. Luxembourg is also the headquarters of the European subsidiary of NSO Group.

Speakers included Carles Puigdemont, a European Union lawmaker and former Catalan regional leader who fled Spain in 2017 to avoid prosecution after a banned independence referendum was held under his leadership.

“The Spanish state has organized a criminal plot to attack a legitimate and democratic political movement,” said Puigdemont, who also urged EU executive leaders to investigate the use of the controversial spyware and, in his own words, “to hold Spain accountable.”

Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles, who oversees the country’s intelligence apparatus, will appear before national lawmakers to answer questions on the matter, the government said.

Pere Aragonès, the current head of the regional administration of Catalonia, said that political relations with the central authorities could not continue normally until the left-center coalition led by Pedro Sánchez thoroughly investigated hacking with external supervision. Aragonès’ own phone was among those allegedly targeted by Pegasus during his previous role as regional vice president.

Almost all of the espionage incidents identified by Citizen Lab occurred between 2017 and 2020, when efforts to create an independent state in northeast Spain led to the country’s deepest political crisis in decades. .