EU must legislate swiftly to further protect the rights of activists, journalists and politicians in the wake of the Pegasus spyware scandal, and wiretappers must be prosecuted, the bloc’s justice commissioner said in the European Parliament.
Didier Reynders told MEPs that the European Commission “totally condemns” alleged attempts by the national security services to illegally gain access to information on political opponents via their phones.
He said: “Any indication that such a privacy intrusion has in fact occurred should be fully investigated and all those responsible for a possible breach should be brought to justice. This is, of course, the responsibility of each EU member state, and I hope that in the case of Pegasus, the relevant authorities will thoroughly examine the allegations and restore confidence. “
He said the EU executive was closely following an investigation by the Hungarian data protection authority into allegations that Viktor Orbán’s far-right government was among those targeting journalists, media owners and opposition politicians with the invasive Pegasus spyware.
Reynders said it was already true, as confirmed by the European Court of Justice, that governments could not “restrict the confidentiality and integrity of communications” except in “very strictly limited” scenarios.
But he added that pending EU privacy regulations would further tighten the rules and called on MEPs and member states to urgently agree on the details of the new law in light of the spyware scandal.
Reynders said: “Various reports have shown that some national security services are using Pegasus spyware, to gain direct access to citizens, equipment, including political opponents and journalists.
“Let me say at the outset that the commission totally condemns any illegal access to the systems or any form of trapping or illegal interception of communications from users of the community. It is a crime throughout the European Union.
A consortium of 17 media outlets, including the Guardian, revealed in July that global clients of Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group had used hacking software to target human rights activists, journalists and lawyers.
The investigation was based on a forensic analysis of the phones and analysis of a leaked database of 50,000 numbers, including that of French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel, as well as ‘other heads of state and senior government officials, diplomats and military personnel. , in 34 countries.
Reynders, a former Belgian justice minister, was speaking at the start of a debate in the European Parliament on the scandal.
Sophie In ‘t Veld, a Dutch MEP from the liberal D66 party, said the parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, of which she is a key member, would launch an investigation into the use of Pegasus within the EU.
“We want total clarity and honesty now,” she said. “The European Commission denies having had any contact with the company, but I find it hard to believe. On our initiative, [the committee] will initiate a prompt investigation into the allegations.
“I would also like to reiterate our call for an appropriate European intelligence service, subject to full democratic control by the European Parliament. Europe is not the Wild West. We need to protect our citizens and our democracy.
Last month, the Hungarian data protection authority NAIH said it had launched an official investigation into allegations of the Hungarian government’s use of the Pegasus software.
At least five Hungarian journalists were on a leaked list reviewed by the Pegasus newspaper consortium. Also on the list was the number of opposition politician György Gémesi, mayor of the city of Gödöllő and head of a national association of mayors.
Hungarian law provides that in cases where national security is at stake, the intelligence services can order surveillance without judicial review, only the signature of the Minister of Justice.
Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga declined to comment, but said “every country needs such tools”.
In ‘t Veld said: “Reports that the Hungarian government used Pegasus spyware is very disturbing. They deserve a full and independent investigation. Journalists, politicians and activists must be able to do their jobs without being spied on by an increasingly authoritarian government. If proven otherwise, it constitutes a massive assault on civil liberties.
Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, MEP from France’s Europe Ecology Les Verts party, said: “So far, the Hungarian government has still not reacted to the revelations of the Pegasus project. Neither transparency nor accountability has been brought to the public debate.
NSO denied that the inclusion of a number on the leaked list was an indication of its selection for surveillance. “The list is not a list of Pegasus targets or potential targets,” the company said. “The numbers on the list are in no way related to the NSO group.”
NSO is an Israeli surveillance company regulated by the country’s Defense Ministry, which approves the sale of its spyware technology to government customers around the world.
The company says it only sells to the military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies in 40 unnamed countries for terrorism and crime investigations.
It also claims to rigorously control its clients’ human rights records before allowing them to use its spy tools. NSO claims that it “does not operate the systems it sells to controlled government clients and does not have access to the data of its clients’ targets.”