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Catalonia calls for EU ‘protection’ from Pegasus cyber snooping

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The European Commission should increase the pressure on the Spanish government if Madrid refuses to carry out an investigation into allegations that it spied on Catalan separatists using the controversial Pegasus spyware, according to the Catalan regional president.

Pere Aragonès told POLITICO that he interprets the Commission’s response to the scandal so far — the EU executive called the abuse of spyware “unacceptable” but said it has no role in the supervision of national security services and that it is up to national authorities to curb abuse — as a “first step” and a “clear message that things cannot continue like this.” But he made it clear that the EU should provide “protection” against espionage.

The Catalan leader was speaking after it was revealed that 63 Catalan politicians, academics and lawyers associated with the independence movement were targeted with the Pegasus spyware developed by the Israeli firm NSO Group. At least 51 of them had their phones infected with it, including Aragonès. The Catalans were resident in five European countries, four of which are EU members.

Aragonès, who has called on the Spanish government to carry out an internal government investigation with independent oversight, said the ball is now in Madrid’s court.

The Spanish government should provide answers, he said, including whether it was indeed involved; who ordered the phones to be tapped; whether the CNI has a contract with NSO Group; whether the espionage was authorized by a Supreme Court judge, as required by Spanish law; how many times Pegasus has been used; how many politicians have been targeted; and what the information collected from phones was used for.

“If there is no positive response [from the Spanish government] we would expect more statements from the European Commission because eventually this is a breach of the rights of European citizens, including data protection,” he said, adding: “We need protection from the European institutions.”

Spain has denied illegally spying on Catalan independence leaders, but neither confirmed nor denied whether the Spanish government — through its national intelligence agency, the CNI — had a contract with NSO Group to use Pegasus.

The CNI acquired Pegasus in the first half of the last decade and paid about €6 million, according to anonymous officials close to the agency who were cited in an article by El País. The argument in favor of purchasing the spyware was that it would be used abroad. However, officials in the Spanish interior ministry told the newspaper there was an attempt to buy Pegasus but it did not go through.

People with a political stance that clashes with that of the Spanish government feel their privacy is “threatened … so it is crucial that the rules at the EU level are restrengthened to prevent an abuse of these tools by member states,” Aragonès said. He added: “It’s essential that Europe understands that a space of citizens’ rights must protect citizens.”

A special inquiry committee launched by the European Parliament this week into the use of Pegasus by European governments showed it is “obvious” that there is “concern” in Brussels, the Catalan president said.

Halt in political talks

The immediate impact of the espionage scandal could be in the attempts to mend ties between the separatist region and the Spanish state. Aragonès said negotiations with Madrid to solve the political conflict with Catalonia after the 2017 failed bid for independence “cannot be normalized” until the Spanish executive provides clear answers on espionage.

More radical factions in the independence movement, like former Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont, called to stop negotiations after the scandal broke. But Aragonès said he still had faith in the process: “I’m committed to the negotiation process, but precisely because … I’ve committed to it in front of the Catalan parliament, and run in an election with this commitment, I must be very demanding with the government of the state,” he said.

The talks can only happen with “a minimum level of trust,” he said, adding this requires “having certainty that espionage is not being used against you to obtain an advantage in this negotiation.”

Catalonia’s national cybersecurity agency is producing a report on the scandal, and Aragonès has announced he plans to take legal action, but he did not clarify whether he would sue the government, NSO Group or both, saying that decision had not yet been taken.

Since the news broke, the Spanish government has increased its public statements and private conversations to try and placate the anger felt by Catalans, and has offered to set a date for the next meeting aimed at solving the Catalan conflict.

Aragonès, however, has demanded a conversation with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

Sánchez canceled a trip to Barcelona Wednesday in which he was due to appear with Aragonès at a firm that manufactures electric vehicle charging technologies, and sent a more junior minister instead.

During a “brief” chat Tuesday, officials at Moncloa — the official residence of the Spanish prime minister — “denied any link whatsoever” to Pegasus, Aragonès said, adding: “When we asked them whether the CNI had acted, there was silence.”

Margarita Robles, the Spanish defense minister, who has oversight over the CNI, is due to give evidence to the Spanish Congress “soon,” when a special committee to discuss espionage is launched. She told broadcasters Wednesday that it is “very easy” to accuse the CNI because the agency is prevented by law from revealing national security information so critics “know it cannot defend itself.”

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