The cyber-espionage affair that has been stirring the political world in Spain for the past month has changed in dimension on Monday. The government announced that Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and the Defense Minister had been spied on by Israeli software Pegasus.
During an emergency press conference in Madrid on this holiday, the Minister of the Presidency, Félix Bolaños, claimed that last year the mobile phones of Mr. Sánchez and Margarita Robles were infected with this software, designed by the Israeli company NSO, which is already the subject of multiple studies around the world.
Denouncing “facts of enormous seriousness”, he emphasized that the government had not only suspicions, but certainties, and confirmed that these were “external” attacks without saying that they came from “a foreign country”.
“We are absolutely sure that this is an attack from outside (…) because in Spain, in a democracy like ours, all interventions are carried out by official bodies and with judicial authorization,” he explained.
“In the present case, neither of these two circumstances has arisen,” continues Mr. Bolaños. “Therefore (…) we have no doubt that this is an external intervention.”
Filed a complaint
The government on Monday filed a complaint about these facts with the National Audience, a court responsible for matters of national or international concern, such as terrorism cases, so that all the light is shed, he said.
Pegasus makes it possible, once installed, to access messages, data or remotely activate the cameras and microphones of a smartphone.
Green light from Tel Aviv needed
NSO has always maintained that this software, the export of which requires the green light from the Israeli authorities, should only be sold to states and only to help them fight terrorism or crime.
However, Pegasus and NSO have faced serious charges since a media consortium revealed last summer that this software had been used to spy on the phones of hundreds of female and male politicians, journalists, human rights activists or business leaders.
According to the NGO Amnesty International, it would have been used to hack up to 50,000 mobile phones worldwide.
According to Bolaños, “two break-ins” took place in Mr. Sánchez’s laptop in May 2021 and one in Ms. Robles’s in June 2021. In both cases, they made it possible to extract “a certain amount of data”, he added. to it without further details.
According to the newspaper El País, hackers extracted 2.6 gigabytes of data from Mr. Sanchez’s phone and nine megabytes from Ms. Robles’s, but the government still does not know “the nature of the stolen information and the degree of sensitivity.” . These are their official phones, provided to them by the state, not private ones.
In a context of crisis
These revelations come as Spain finds itself in a crisis between the government of Mr. Sánchez, a socialist, and the independence circles of Catalonia (Northeast) who accuse the National Intelligence Center (CNI) of spying on them with Pegasus.
The case broke out on April 18, when Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity project at the Canadian University of Toronto, released a report identifying 65 pro-independence activists — mostly Catalans — whose phones were allegedly hacked by the software between 2017 and 2020.
Faced with these allegations, Mr. Sánchez, without saying whether or not there was espionage by the state intelligence services, announced the start of an internal investigation within the CNI and promised to be “responsible”.
‘Two weights, two measures’
The initial reactions of Catalan separatist circles after the government revelations were very harsh.
“If mass espionage is directed against Catalan institutions and independence, it is silence and apologies,” the president of the Catalan regional government, Pere Aragonés, tweeted. ‘The double standard is clear. All is well with independence.
The crisis is all the more serious for Mr Sánchez’s left-wing minority government, as it needs the support of Mr Aragonés’ party in parliament to remain in power until the end of the parliamentary term at the end of 2023.
According to Bolaños, Pegasus is still being checked to see if other members of the Spanish government have also been spied on.