MADRID (AP) — The telephones of dozens of pro-independence supporters in Spain’s northeastern Catalonia, together with the regional chief and different elected officers, have been hacked with controversial adware out there solely to governments, a cybersecurity rights group mentioned Monday.
Citizen Lab, a analysis group affiliated with the University of Toronto, mentioned a large-scale investigation it had performed in collaboration with Catalan civil society teams discovered that not less than 65 people have been focused or their units contaminated with what it calls “mercenary spyware” offered by two Israeli corporations, NSO Group and Candiru.
Almost the entire incidents occurred between 2017 and 2020, when efforts to carve out an unbiased state in northeastern Spain led to the nation’s deepest political disaster in many years. The former Catalan Cabinet that pushed forward with an unlawful referendum on independence was sacked. Most of its members have been imprisoned or fled the nation, together with ex regional president Carles Puigdemont.
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NSO’s Pegasus adware has been used world wide to interrupt into the telephones and computer systems of human rights activists, journalists and even Catholic clergy. The agency has been topic to export limits by the U.S. federal authorities, which has accused NSO of conducting “transnational repression.” NSO has also been brought to court by major technology companies, including Apple and Meta, the owner of WhatsApp.
Citizen Lab said its investigations into the use in Spain of Pegasus and spyware developed by Candiru — another Israeli firm founded by former NSO employees — started in late 2019 after a handful of cases targeting high-profile Catalan pro-independence individuals were revealed. Amnesty International said its technical experts had independently verified the attacks.
The Toronto-based non-profit said it could not find conclusive evidence to attribute the hacking of Catalan phones to a specific entity.
“However, a range of circumstantial evidence points to a strong nexus with one or more entities within Spanish government,” Citizen Lab mentioned.
Spain’s Interior Ministry mentioned no ministry division, nor the National Police or the Civil Guard, “have ever had any relation with NSO and have therefore never contracted any of its services.” The ministry’s assertion mentioned that, in Spain, “all intervention of communications are conducted under judicial order and in full respect of legality.”
Spain’s Ministry of Defense, which oversees the armed forces and intelligence providers, and the prime minister’s workplace didn’t instantly reply to questions from The Associated Press.
Pegasus infiltrates telephones to hoover up private and site information and in addition surreptitiously controls the smartphone’s microphones and cameras, turning them into real-time surveillance units. NSO Group’s stealthiest hacking software program makes use of “zero-click” exploits to contaminate focused cell phones with none person interplay.
Citizen Lab mentioned indicators of a “zero-click” exploit not beforehand recognized have been present in contaminated units of Catalans on the finish of 2019 and in early 2020 earlier than Apple up to date its cellular working system to patch vulnerabilities.
Among the focused people have been not less than three European lawmakers representing Catalan separatist events, members of two outstanding pro-independence civil society teams, their attorneys and numerous elected officers
The revelations come as European Union lawmakers on Tuesday are holding the primary assembly of a committee wanting into breaches of EU legislation related to the usage of hacker-for-hire adware.
Four former regional Catalan presidents, together with Puigdemont and his successor Quim Torra whereas he was holding workplace, have been additionally topic to direct or oblique spying, the researchers mentioned.
Current Catalan President Pere Aragonès, whose cellphone was contaminated, in keeping with Citizen Lab, whereas he served as Torra’s deputy from 2018 to 2020, mentioned “massive espionage against the Catalan independence movement is an unjustifiable disgrace, an attack on fundamental rights and democracy.”
Because the software can only be acquired by state entities, the Spanish government must offer an explanation, Aragonès said in a series of tweets.
“No excuses are valid,” he wrote. “To spy on representatives of citizens, lawyers or civil rights activists is a red line.”
In a response to Amnesty International’s formal request in 2020 for full disclosure on contracts with private digital surveillance companies, Spain’s Defense Ministry said that information is classified, the rights group said Monday.
“The Spanish government needs to come clean over whether or not it is a customer of NSO Group,” mentioned Likhita Banerji, an Amnesty International researcher. “It must also conduct a thorough, independent investigation into the use of Pegasus spyware against the Catalans identified.”
In a separate report additionally launched Monday, Citizen Lab mentioned it had additionally discovered proof in 2020 and 2021 that the British prime minister’s workplace was contaminated with Pegasus adware linked to the United Arab Emirates. It mentioned it discovered suspected infections at Britain’s Foreign Office linked to the UAE, India, Cyprus, and Jordan.
The group mentioned it had knowledgeable the British authorities in regards to the findings.
Other international locations the place Citizen Lab and different public-interest researchers have confirmed Pegasus infections on political dissidents and journalists important of governments embody Poland, Mexico, El Salvador and Hungary.
NSO Group claims it solely sells Pegasus to authorities companies to focus on criminals and terrorists, however a whole bunch of circumstances have been documented of its use in opposition to human rights and different activists, attorneys, reporters and their family.
Frank Bajak in Boston and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.
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