EU Parliament to launch investigative committee on Pegasus spyware

An investigation by a consortium of media outlets last year revealed how the spyware, produced by Israeli firm NSO Group, had been used to target high-profile figures. [Shutterstock / mundissima]

The launch of a committee to investigate the use of Pegasus spyware within the EU has been agreed to and is expected to be approved for action by the European Parliament next week.

The Parliament’s Conference of Presidents – a group made up of the legislature’s President, Roberta Metsola, and the heads of each of its political groups – agreed to the establishment of an inquiry committee on the subject ahead of a vote at the plenary session in Strasbourg next week, where lawmakers will confirm the launch and mandate of the investigation. 

The committee is set to look into the purchase and deployment of the controversial technology and allegations that it was used by EU governments – namely Poland and Hungary – to hack the phones of critics, journalists and politicians. Made up of 38 members, it will spend 12 months scrutinising the tech’s presence in Europe. 

A key aim of the inquiry is to increase citizens’ confidence in government, more important than ever in the context of the war in Ukraine, said Polish MEP Róża Thun on Thursday (3 March). 

“Instead of using the modern technology against the opposition, journalists and lawyers, the governments of the EU member states should build trust and involve all the actors”, she said. 

An investigation by a consortium of media outlets last year revealed how the spyware, produced by Israeli firm NSO Group, had been used to target high-profile figures including French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel.

The consortium’s investigation into the spyware found that the technology had been widely abused by governments around the world, used to take control of and provide a window into the devices of targets from politicians and diplomats to lawyers and activists. 

The establishment of such an inquiry committee is a rare occurrence.  The Parliament’s Renew group first proposed an investigation in September 2021, but it failed to gain the necessary support. After the emergence of further information about the extent of the spyware’s use in Europe, however, the initiative gained further backing and its launch was confirmed in February.

The European Commission last July announced the launch of its own investigation into the tool’s use and whether it had violated EU laws at a time when Hungary was already in conflict with Brussels over its adherence to bloc-wide rule of law provisions.

Commission to look into Pegasus affair, Reynders says

The European Commission has decided to launch an investigation on the surveillance of EU journalists as the bloc reels from the Pegasus Project revelations released over the weekend that governments had used military spyware to intercept communications.

“We are starting to …

Last month, the European Data Protection Supervisor called for a ban on surveillance spyware like Pegasus, saying it could lead to an “unprecedented level of intrusiveness” in people’s everyday lives.

The Polish government acknowledged in January that it bought the software, despite previous denials to this effect. It disputed claims, however, that it had been used to infiltrate the phones of critics, three of whom, including an opposition senator, were found by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab to have been on the receiving end of the technology.

A commission launched by the country’s Senate but boycotted by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, found that the spyware had been bought by Poland’s Anti-Corruption Bureau in 2017; senators now plan to draft legislation to regulate the use of surveillance technology. 

Polish government accused of illegal purchase of Pegasus software

The government’s use of €5.4 million of court funds to buy the Israeli Pegasus software to investigate a person suspected of criminal activity was unlawful, claims leading Gazeta Wyborcza daily.

The revelations cast new light on the recent information that the Central Anti-Corruption …

Hungary, the only EU country listed as a client of NSO Group, has acknowledged the purchase of the tech, but similarly denies that it was used maliciously. An investigation by the country’s National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information concluded that all instances of its use were legally justifiable and in the interests of national security. 

According to the original investigation, journalists and the owners of media organisations were among those targeted with the spyware by the government of Viktor Orbán. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union last month announced a suit against the government and NSO Group on behalf of the journalists whose devices were compromised.

Hungary employed Pegasus spyware in hundreds of cases, says government agency

The cases of Hungarian individuals who were targeted with the Pegasus phone spyware by the government were all completely legally justifiable, an investigation by the national security services found, Telex reported on Monday.

Without giving exact names because of privacy considerations, Attila Péterfalvi, …

While Poland and Hungary have been the most prominent cases of the tech’s use in the EU, Dutch MEP Sophie in ’t Veld noted on Thursday that it had also possibly been deployed in other countries, such as Bulgaria. 

As such, she said, the scope of the investigation’s draft mandate is subject to revision and expansion if new information comes to light as the committee moves forward. She also noted that multiple lines of inquiry would be covered, including violations of data protection, the right to privacy, European electoral law and the EU’s fundamental treaties. 

“We will do everything we can, even with the limited means we have”, she said. “Even with those limited means, we can dig up a lot of information.”

EURACTIV contacted several Polish and Hungarian MEPs belonging to the respective ruling parties but received no answer by the time of the publication.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Nathalie Weatherald]

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