MADRID – Data has been downloaded from mobile phones used by Spain’s prime minister and defense minister that were infected with powerful spyware, known as Pegasus, from an Israeli company, the country’s government said Monday.
The revelation that Pegasus has reached the top echelons of Spain’s government heightens a scandal over political espionage in the country after a cybersecurity watchdog discovered Pegasus was installed on the devices of dozens of politicians from Catalonia’s pro-independence government.
Pegasus is an advanced and robust surveillance tool, and while it has been used by dozens of governments to track down criminals, terrorists and drug traffickers, developments in Spain will raise concerns that there are insufficient controls in place to prevent abuse.
The hacking represented an “illegal and external” interference in Spanish politics, Félix Bolaños, a minister in the Spanish government, said at a news conference, adding that the use of the spyware attack was “foreign” to national authorities and was not receive any form of judicial authorization.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Defense Secretary Margarita Robles had their phones monitored by Pegasus spyware about a year ago, Bolaños said, and Spanish authorities tried to determine whether other ministers and senior officials were being targeted.
Bolaños said the national court, which is charged with cases of terrorism and other serious crimes, would investigate how Pegasus was used to control Spanish officials.
Pegasus is software developed by NSO Group, an Israeli company, in part to help governments detect criminal and terrorist activities. The software allows users to track every aspect of a target’s phone – including calls, messages, photos and video.
But its use has sparked scandal in several countries, and last November the Biden administration blacklisted NSO Group for knowingly supplying spyware that has been used by foreign governments to target the phones of dissidents, human rights activists, to attack journalists and others.
“While we have not seen any information related to this alleged abuse and we are not aware of the details of this particular case,” NSO Group said in a statement Monday, “NSO’s firm stance on these issues is that the use of cyber tools to monitor politicians, dissidents, activists and journalists is a serious misuse of any technology and goes against the desired use of such critical tools.”
The Madrid government announcement adds a twist to the dispute over political espionage in Spain, which has flared up again with revelations last month that Catalan officials had been under surveillance.
Regional leaders demanded that the central government open an investigation into the use of Pegasus against Catalan politicians, including the region’s current leader, Pere Aragonès.
“All political espionage is extremely serious,” said Mr Aragonès in a statement on Twitter† “We have been denouncing it for days without explanation from the Spanish government. When mass espionage is against the Catalan institutions and independence, silence and apologies. Everything is in a hurry these days.”
The latest Catalan revelations were sparked by a report from Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity watchdog organization at the University of Toronto that has been investigating illegal surveillance activities worldwide.
At the time, Citizen Lab also said it had found evidence of what it called “multiple suspected cases of Pegasus spyware infections within official UK networks”, including at the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Office.
At an emergency news conference held on a public holiday in Madrid, government officials said the prime minister’s phone was compromised in May 2021 and the defense minister’s device was hit a month later.
“These are facts and not assumptions,” Bolaños said. “We know that the Pegasus software has been used illegally in 20 countries and that governments are among the victims.”