Spanish judge okays probe into Israeli NSO group over Catalan phone tapping

Catalan separatist party claims more than 60 phones belonging to independence supporters bugged using Pegasus phone hacking software during independence bid in 2017

An Illustration of a man holding his phone with an NSO Group logo with a computer screen in the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An Illustration of a man holding his phone with an NSO Group logo with a computer screen in the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

BARCELONA, Spain — A Spanish judge has authorized a probe into the firm behind the Pegasus spyware over the alleged hacking of phones belonging to Catalan independence supporters, court documents showed Thursday.

More than 60 phones were targeted, most of them belonging to people associated with the Catalan separatist party ERC, with the complaint filed by party lawyer Andreu Van den Eynde.

The complaint was accepted on July 1 by the examining magistrate at a Barcelona court, with the decision released on Thursday.

In a statement, Van den Eynde said it was the first such investigation into Israel’s NSO Group and the use of its Pegasus software for espionage involving Catalan separatists.

According to court documents seen by AFP, the Spanish probe will seek to establish whether NSO committed any crime “in the creation and provision of the Pegasus program to third parties.”

It will also see whether the company carried out “actions or omissions” that involved the “verification of, access to, and extraction of information” on mobile phones, as alleged by the plaintiff.

Independence supporters gather outside the Palau Catalan Regional Government Building in Barcelona, October 30, 2017. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images via JTA)

The scandal broke in April when Canadian cybersecurity watchdog Citizen Lab said more than 60 mobiles of people linked to the Catalan separatist movement had been tapped using Pegasus spyware after a failed independence bid in 2017.

Although Spain acknowledged its intelligence services had spied on the phones of 18 separatist leaders — with court approval — it said the “vast majority” of numbers identified by Citizen Lab were hacked by “unknown actors.”

Among those targeted were Catalan leader Pere Aragones, an ERC member, as well as ex-regional leaders Quim Torra and Artur Mas along with Catalan lawmakers and representatives of civil society.

Van den Eynde’s phone was also targeted, according to the Citizen Lab report, which said the spying occurred between 2017 and 2020.

Earlier this week, Aragones filed his own complaint against NSO and the former head of Spain’s intelligence service.

He was one of the 18 people on whom Spain had admitted spying.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez speaks during a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, April 21, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

In May, the Spanish government revealed that the mobile phones of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and several other top ministers had been hacked in May and June 2021 using Pegasus software.

It still does not know who was responsible but said it was convinced it was “an external attack.”

The government filed a legal complaint on May 2, and a National Court judge said last month he was seeking to travel to Israel to quiz the CEO of NSO Group.

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