Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) has called on the EU to ban the use of the controversial Pegasus spyware within the Union. The EU watchdog agency’s demand comes as MEPs from major political blocs within the European Parliament are urging an inquiry into the illegal use of the software by EU member states as a means of targeting journalists, opposition figures, and activists.
Pegasus, a cyber-surveillance tool developed by the Israeli NSO Group, can be and has been used to infect most mobile devices running iOS and Android operating systems. Once a device is infected by Pegasus, it can track and monitor all calls, text messages, collect passwords, pinpoint the users’ locations, and can even secretly switch on the phone’s microphone and cameras, transforming it into a real-time surveillance device.
NSO, which markets Pegasus to governments, claims its software is intended to combat terrorism and organised crime, but a growing number of reports indicate that the spyware is often used by authoritarian-inclined governments to monitor dissenters and journalists critical of the government, as well as opposition figures, business leaders, lawyers and others deemed to represent a threat to the regime.
Such misuse of Pegasus was first reported by Forbidden Stories, the Paris-based non-profit journalism group, which uncovered what is believed to be a list of more than 50,000 potential targets for the spyware. The EP, which awarded the group with its highest journalism recognition in October last year, concluded that reporting by Forbidden Stories showed “how this technology has been systematically abused for years.”
In yesterday’s release, EDPS warned that the use of Pegasus makes it incompatible with democratic values. “The mounting evidence shows that highly advanced military-grade spyware like Pegasus has the potential to cause unprecedented risks and damages not only to the fundamental freedoms but also to democracy and the rule of law”, the watchdog’s report noted.
A majority of MEPs support the initiative to set up an Inquiry Committee to look into the illegal use of spyware by member states. Both Hungary and Poland have admitted to using Israeli software.
Supporting the initiative on behalf of the Italian 5 Star Movement (M5S) party, MEP Laura Ferrara branded the NSO as being a “crime and terrorism” company. “Anyone could be abused, with serious repercussions on fundamental freedoms and even personal security”, she declared “Strict regulation and effective controls are needed regarding countries of destination, contracts and all kinds of information that reveal the improper use of these products and the possible violation of fundamental rights.”
The European People’s Party (EPP) group also issued a release on Tuesday, supporting the initiative and warning that the Pegasus issue is a question that concerns the security of citizens in Europe. “The disturbing examples in Poland and Hungary are appalling”, the EPP Group’s spokesman on civil liberties, Jeroen Lenaers, said. “The illegal tapping of political opponents and journalists is not only against EU law; it is also against fundamental EU values such as media freedom and freedom of speech.”