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EU parliament to investigate use of NSO Group's Pegasus spyware

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By Alberto De Filippis
EU parliament to investigate use of NSO Group's Pegasus spyware
Copyright  Amnesty International

The European Parliament is setting up a rare committee of inquiry into the Pegasus spyware scandal, as more evidence emerges it's being used to spy on politicians, journalists, and activists in several member states.

The European Data Protection Supervisor has called for a ban on the use of the spyware in the EU and justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, told MEPs that he "totally condemns" alleged attempts by national security services to illegally access information on political opponents.

What is Pegasus and why it is considered so dangerous?

In late antiquity, the Pegasus winged horse that sprang from the blood of the Gorgon Medusa was interpreted as an allegory of the soul’s immortality but in modern times it has become a huge headache.

Developed by an Israeli cyber-arms company, the NSO Group, Pegasus is a spyware that can be covertly installed on mobile phones (and other devices) running on most versions of iOS and Android.

Many EU countries are already concerned about its impact. In Poland, a senate commission saw documents in January that suggested that country’s Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) had bought Pegasus in 2017 using funds from the justice ministry. Law and Justice, the lead party in the governing coalition, boycotted the commission in the opposition-led senate.

What is Europe doing?

The Renew Europe group at the European Parliament has requested and obtained the creation of a committee of inquiry, according to MEP Sophie In 't Veld and others.

Hungarian opposition MP Anna Júlia Donáth says that Pegasus could put at risk the entire electoral process.

“In the spring of 2022, there will be parliamentary elections in Hungary. The stakes in these elections are huge because, despite all the anti-democratic measures taken by the Hungarian ruling party, there is a real chance that Viktor Orbán will be replaced," she said.

She claims that "the phones of journalists, students, lawyers, opposition politicians have been hacked and silenced. That is why we need the establishment of an independent European committee of inquiry and the hearing and prosecution of Viktor Orbán in the European Parliament. We must prevent further destruction of the rule of law”.

The cross-party body will seek testimony from member states’ intelligence services, elected politicians, and senior officials, with a previous inquiry into alleged European facilitation of CIA “black sites” providing a model.

Black sites are secret bases used by the CIA to conduct interrogations, detain enemies of the US state, or from which to conduct unofficial operations. In these places, which are often not on American territory, the constitutional guarantees of the imprisoned individuals are suspended. This is why the discovery of their existence caused a wave of indignation in America.

The move is the most significant yet from Brussels since a group of media organisations revealed that Pegasus software was being used against journalists, activists, and politicians in numerous countries across the world including in Europe.

Once the committee has completed its investigation it will file a report for national governments and the European Commission.

The European Union has not yet offered a date for the start of the investigation, but after discussions about compliance with the Rule of Law in countries like Poland and Hungary, the investigations seem imminent.

How do software manufacturers defend themselves?

The company producing the programme has defended itself by stating that the spyware was designed to combat terrorism. However, reports have shown that tens of thousands of private messages were stolen since 2016.

The NSO Group has said they will no longer respond to media inquiries over what they call a "well-orchestrated media campaign" against them.

“It will not play along with the vicious and slanderous campaign," they say.

The bases for the inquiry

IT security has become an increasingly important reality to face the growing challenges in this sector.

Brussels is now working on a high-speed internet network in space to allow Europe to remain better connected.

The total cost of the infrastructure is estimated at €6 billion, of which €2.4 billion is allocated from the common budget.