Brussels may be stepping up its rhetoric against intrusive spyware, but EU governments don’t seem to have gotten the memo.
During the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday, MEPs from all political backgrounds strongly condemned the mounting evidence that so-called Pegasus software, developed by the NSO Group, has been used to spy on politicians, journalists and activists in the 27 Member States. block. Journalists revealed last July that the software was likely used by governments around the world to keep tabs on opponents.
“We cannot overemphasize the seriousness of this scandal,” said Jeroen Lenaers, whose centre-right European People’s Party has backed calls by Liberals in Parliament for an investigation into Pegasus.
The demagoguery of European legislators is commonplace. But their fervor now extends to other EU institutions: the European Data Protection Supervisor called on Tuesday for Pegasus to be banned.
NSO Group, meanwhile, denied any wrongdoing and said at the time of the first revelations that it would “thoroughly investigate any misuse of its technology”.
In remarks to MEPs on Tuesday, EU justice chief Didier Reynders called on EU member countries to implement rules to protect people from such spying. He noted that a blanket endorsement of surveillance for national security reasons, an area that is fiercely guarded by national capitals, would not wash over Brussels.
“A measure presented as being linked to national security does not mean that everything is permitted,” said the Belgian commissioner.
Reynders’ comments could be interpreted as a warning to watchdogs in Hungary and Poland, which are investigating alleged use of the Pegasus spyware against government opponents. Although it confirmed that Pegasus had indeed been used in Hungary, the country’s data protection watchdog approved the government’s use of the software on national security grounds.
But privacy advocates in the country have cried foul, arguing that the national security legislation in question itself breaches European standards. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union followed up in January, filing a lawsuit with Hungarian authorities, the European Commission and Israel, which is responsible for exporting the technology.
In Poland, the spyware scandal is proving to be a political headache for the ruling Law and Justice party, which has been accused of using Pegasus to hack into the phones of opposition politicians. The government, which is working to block further parliamentary scrutiny of the issue, admits to having the technology but denies using it ahead of the 2019 national elections.
In response to fears over the independence of government watchdogs in those two countries, which are both locked in a rule of law battle with Brussels, Reynders said the Commission “would not hesitate” to launch disciplinary action if there was a suspicion of a conflict. -matters of interest.
In Western Europe, governments are also holding their breath.
Although none were involved in the scandal as directly as their counterparts in Warsaw and Budapest, there were some close shaves. Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel hinted in October that his government had purchased the software, which allows those who deploy it to effectively turn targets’ phones into listening devices. He then clarified that the government bought the technology for national security reasons, steering the country away from reports of its use on journalists and activists.
France, too, is said to have been in talks to buy the software, although President Emmanuel Macron’s government has denied the allegations. On Tuesday, Macron’s man in Brussels, European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune, sought to bring daylight between his government and Warsaw and Budapest.
“The use of surveillance software can only be the exception. This type of surveillance is such a serious invasion of privacy that it can only be used under the strictest conditions,” Beaune said.
But while officials like Beaune speak of a good game in public, behind the scenes there is a full press from EU governments – not just Poland and Hungary – as well as some corners of the Commission to give national agencies better access to citizens’ private data. .
Documents obtained by POLITICO reveal that the French government continues to pressure its judicial system to give the green light to mass surveillance practices that have been deemed illegal by the EU’s highest court.
In Brussels, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson is leading talks to relaunch an EU-wide program to legalize such practices, where national agencies have massive access to personal data held by private companies. , even though the bloc’s highest court has time and has again found that such schemes violate the right to privacy.
Johansson’s enthusiastic support for law enforcement contrasts with his Berlaymont colleague Reynders’ warning against state excesses on espionage, highlighting divisions within the EU executive .
There is also broad support among EU countries for a framework to facilitate access to encrypted messages, with the Commission pledging to find “a way forward” on the subject later this year, while Negotiators in Brussels recently voted to scrap restrictions on what law enforcement agency Europol can do with people’s data.
“This situation reminds me of the movie ‘The Lives of Others’, which describes how a government critic is spied on around the clock by a government agent. And we all thought that was a very scary image. But the thing is, it’s not a movie. This has been a reality for millions of Europeans for many decades,” Sophie in ‘t Veld, MEP from the centrist group Renew Europe, said on Tuesday.