Liberals in EU parliament seek inquiry into abuse of spyware

Technology

FILE – A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, Aug. 24, 2021. The third-largest group in the European Parliament has called for the establishment of a committee to investigate abuses by European Union governments with powerful spyware produced by Israel’s NSO Group. Renew Europe, a liberal political grouping, said Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 that the use of the software to break into the phones of government critics is “undermining democracy.” (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — European Parliament lawmakers called Wednesday for a committee to investigate rights abuses by European Union governments using powerful spyware produced by Israel’s NSO Group.

Meanwhile, the Polish Senate formally approved the formation of a committee to investigate evidence that three critics of the country’s right-wing government were hacked with the spyware. Sen. Marcin Bosacki, who will lead the inquiry, said the step was needed “due to the deepest concern for our democracy and the future of the Polish state.”

Renew Europe, a liberal political group that is the third-largest in the European Parliament, made its appeal for the European-wide inquiry following reports that NSO Group’s Pegasus software has been used to hack the smartphones of opposition politicians, lawyers, journalists and critics of the right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland.

“We need a full inquiry into the Pegasus spyware scandal. European democracy is being undermined and the EU should act accordingly,” said Sophie in ’t Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament. “We cannot let this pass. Our democracy is at stake.”

She said the European Commission, the executive branch for the 27-nation bloc, should follow the example of the U.S. government and “quickly blacklist Pegasus’ parent company NSO.”

The Biden administration put new export limits in November on Israel’s NSO Group, saying its tools have been used to “conduct transnational repression.”

Renew said in a statement that it hopes other groups will support its call, noting that an inquiry would constitute the first action on the matter from an EU institution.

Pegasus is a powerful surveillance tool sold to government agencies to fight terrorism and other serious crimes. But investigations have been turning up evidence that in many places it is being used to target domestic critics and rivals.

An investigation by a global media consortium published in July showed that Pegasus was used in Hungary to infiltrate the digital devices of a range of targets — including at least 10 lawyers, one opposition politician and several government-critical journalists.

In late December, The Associated Press reported that three Polish critics of the government were also hacked, based on investigations by the Citizen Lab, a research institute at the University of Toronto. Last week ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s most powerful politician, acknowledged that the country had the spyware but denied it was used against the opposition.

Among the Polish victims are a lawyer, a prosecutor and a senator who was hacked multiple times in 2019 when he was running the opposition’s parliamentary election campaign. Text messages stolen from Senator Krzysztof Brejza’s phone were doctored and aired by state-controlled TV in Poland as part of a smear campaign in the heat of the race, which the populist ruling party went on to narrowly win.

The hacking revelations have rocked Poland, drawing comparisons to the 1970s Watergate scandal in the United States.

However, Kaczynski and other top members of the ruling Law and Justice party say they see no reason for an investigation into the hacking. The party can block a probe thanks to its majority in the lower house, or Sejm.

The Senate, where the opposition holds a slim majority, voted 52-45 on Wednesday to launched its committee. One of its aims will be to determine whether the hacking of Brejza’s phone altered the outcome of the 2019 elections. The head of committee, Sen. Bosacki, said a state in which secret services have an influence on the election process ceases to be a democracy.

Only the Sejm, whose roles include supervising the government, can launch an inquiry with full investigative powers, including calling witnesses. The Senate can invite witnesses but not require them to appear. Law and Justice senators refused to accept the seats it was offered on the committee.

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