Pegasus is a military grade spyware tool developed and licensed by the Israeli company, the NSO Group. It was used in different countries to target smartphones belonging to journalists, human rights activists and opposition figures and has been “widely misused”, according to an investigation by journalism non-profit organisation Forbidden Stories, released in July 2021.
The spyware can be installed remotely on a smartphone without requiring any action from its owner and without leaving a trace. It effectively mirrors a phone’s encrypted messages, for example from WhatsApp and Signal, and turns the phone into a surveillance device by switching on the microphone and camera.
The recent revelations that the PiS Government in Poland used Pegasus for surveillance of political opponents and prosecutors are appalling. The reports follow other disturbing examples in another EU member state, Hungary, where the Fidesz government is accused of having deployed Pegasus software against journalists.
It is crucial that such technology is not used illegally or arbitrarily. The disturbing examples in Poland and Hungary are inexcusable.
EU law, of course, prohibits the tapping of political opponents and journalists. It is not illegal because it contravenes any law. The practice is totally incompatible with fundamental EU values such as media freedom and freedom of speech.
Abuse that happens anywhere in Europe, like in Poland or Hungary, is not constrained to those borders. It puts the security of all European citizens at stake.
The new surveillance tools pose significant challenges to fundamental rights, such as the right to privacy. We must acknowledge increasing illegal surveillance threats and outline possible measures to mitigate risks to democracy and the rights of citizens.
It is not difficult to understand the risks. Anyone can be a victim of illegal tapping. What this means is that every single message you share with your loved ones, every video you watch on your phone is being watched with you. All the time, people who don’t have your best interests at heart are aware of your exact whereabouts.
Anyone can be a victim of illegal tapping. What this means is that every single message you share with your loved ones, every video you watch on your phone is being watched with you
To some people, this might not be a huge deal. But no nefarious actor invests huge sums of money without seeking commensurate returns.
It is very important that the European Parliament stands behind and fights alongside the victims of such attacks with strength and vigour. The consequences of these attacks go beyond the harm done to individual victims. They affect everyone’s freedom to scrutinise their governments and defend democracy and the rule of law.
It is, therefore, a cyberattack on democracy and a counterattack against the right to information and to free participation in democracy. It is a repression and violation of human rights and we have to oppose it.
The scandal is not that modern digital technologies are used by secret services in order to effectively fight terrorism or dangerous criminals. Secret services should, and indeed must, have capabilities of this kind at their disposal.
Nevertheless, there is one condition – they must not be used as weapons in political battles nor against democratic processes, institutions, politicians or journalists. The Pegasus spyware has been used far beyond its original design as a means of combating terrorism.
The European Parliament has taken a strong stance on this matter. A majority in the parliament agreed on setting up an Inquiry Committee to look into the illegal use of the Pegasus spyware by certain EU member states.
This is not a matter of better regulation of a few private companies. This is a battle for control of a quickly growing cyber weapons industry, which is not only highly profitable but gives those states that can supervise the industry enormous influence over other states.
Pegasus is eroding our democracy. At stake is the integrity of our Union and of our democratic institutions, including that of the European Parliament.
MEP Andrzej Halicki is head of the Polish EPP Group Delegation. MEP Jeroen Lenaers is the EPP Group spokesperson on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. MEP David Casa is member of the EPP Group and the Nationalist Party