WhatsApp confirms Catalan separatist’s phone targeted with Israeli firm spyware

Roger Torrent has accused Madrid of spying on him by employing NSO-made Pegasus software; messaging giant doesn’t say whether hack succeeded

Roger Torrent, president of Catalonian Parliament, speaking at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, January 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)
Roger Torrent, president of Catalonian Parliament, speaking at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, January 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

WhatsApp has confirmed that the private phone of the speaker of the Catalan regional parliament was targeted last year as part of an attack that used software made by Israel’s NSO Group, according to reports published Tuesday.

Roger Torrent, a leading supporter of Catalonia’s efforts to break away from Spain and become an independent country, demanded earlier this month that the Spanish government launch an official investigation into reports that his cellphone was the target of espionage, allegedly by Spanish security services using the Israeli-made software.

The messaging company, owned by Facebook, confirmed in a letter to Torrent that his WhatsApp account was “targeted in an attempt to gain unauthorized access to data and communications on the device,” The Guardian and El Pais reported.

“By ‘targeted’ we are referring to the fact that the attackers attempted to inject malicious code into Mr. Torrent’s WhatsApp application,” wrote Niamh Sweeney, WhatsApp’s director of public policy for Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

This February 19, 2014, photo, shows WhatsApp and Facebook app icons on a smartphone in New York (AP Photo/Patrick Sison)

“Based on the information available to us, we are not in a position to confirm whether Mr. Torrent’s device was compromised as this could only be achieved through an exhaustive forensic analysis of the device,” Sweeney wrote, offering Torrent “an open communication channel” and assistance.

“We advocate for strong legal oversight of cyber weapons like the ones used in this cyber attack to ensure they are not used to violate individual rights and the freedoms people deserve, wherever they are in the world,” she added.

A report published July 14 by El Pais and The Guardian said Torrent was warned last year that his phone had been targeted by spyware that, according to NSO, is sold only to governments and national security services.

The Spanish and British newspapers cited a US lawsuit involving the spyware, which, they reported, exploited an earlier vulnerability in WhatsApp and could potentially provide access to everything on a phone. The reports provided no evidence that Torrent’s phone was hacked.

An Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed the NSO Group intelligence firm, August 28, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP/File)

The reports said WhatsApp believed the attacks occurred in April and May last year, over a two-week period, with 1,400 WhatsApp users allegedly targeted by the Pegasus spyware sold by NSO.

The company is taking legal action against NSO in connection with the attacks.

Two other well-known pro-independence figures in Catalonia were also targeted, according to the reports.

Catalonia’s efforts to separate from Spain have long been a thorn in the side of Spanish governments.

Torrent said at the time that those reports “prove what we already knew: that the Spanish state spies on its political opponents.” Demanding an investigation, he said in a televised statement, “It’s important for the truth to come out.”

Spain’s intelligence service, known by its acronym CNI, declined to answer questions about the allegations.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s office said in a statement that the government was not aware that the three phones might have been hacked. It added that any such step would require a judge’s authorization.

The Republican Left of Catalonia, a political party that wants Catalan independence and which includes Torrent in its ranks, and the pro-independence coalition JxCat demanded Tuesday that Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska appear urgently before a parliamentary committee to answer questions about the reports.

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