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  • Foto van schrijverMaria Sejfryd

You are being watched!

Members of the Polish opposition and judiciary were hacked with Pegasus spyware, after it had already been revealed that journalists and politicians were being bugged in Hungary. European Parliament is calling for the EU to act.

Pegasus - dangerous tool

Pegasus is a spyware, which means that hackers use it to spy. In this case, they can see what messages you type in the iMessage app. Spyware is also used to record your keystrokes - it can detect your passwords. The dangerous thing about it is that you often don't notice that the malware is embedded in your operating system. The software, which is made by the Israeli NSO Group, is a type of Trojan. This means, for example, that it is not necessary to click on a phishing link to be attacked. Hence the name Pegasus: like a flying horse, it enters your smartphone 'over the air'. Pegasus takes advantage of a weakness in all iOS versions from 14.6 and above. This allows it to see iPhone users’ location, their passwords, what messages they send and even record what happens within range of the hacked phone via the microphone and the camera. The existence of Pegasus has been known since 2016 and is still regarded as one of the most impressive smartphone hacks. But until now, it was believed that this technology is only used by the governments of the United Arab Emirates or North Korea to keep an eye on activists, journalists and political leaders. Surprisingly, European politicians (and not only politicians) are being watched too!

"The affair of all affairs"

Last month it became clear that Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party was using secret services to spy on and discredit the opposition. That would mean that the elections that gave PiS a narrow majority in 2019 were not fair. Heavily spied was among others K. Brejza - Polish politician. “So when we planned our election campaign, J. Kaczynski, Z. Ziobro and M. Kaminski were sitting at our table” - said Brejza, referring to PiS leader Kaczynski, Justice Minister Ziobro and chief of the security services Kaminski. “They had information about our plans, tactics, strategy and electoral actions.” Text messages stolen from Brejza's phone were stitched together into compromising fake emails, with which state television - under the strict direction of the PiS party - started a smear campaign. "It's not surprising that PiS won the elections by using these kinds of methods"- adds Brejza. The Polish senator's smartphone was hacked 33 times. In addition to Brejza, a prosecutor and a lawyer, both critics of the Polish government, have also been attacked with Pegasus spyware, according to Citizen Lab. The three victims suspect the Polish government of the attack.

A threat to civil society

“These findings are shocking, but not surprising”, says A. Blaszczak, director of Amnesty Poland. According to her, they are a matter of serious concern not only for politicians, but for the entire Polish civil society, especially given the government's record of persistently undermining human rights and the rule of law. Activists and protesters have been regularly targeted by criminal investigations in Poland, which have undermined the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Meanwhile, judges and prosecutors who express concerns about the lack of independence of the judiciary face disciplinary and even criminal investigations. Despite media reports that the Israeli government has halted the export of Pegasus spyware from the NSO Group to a group of countries, including Poland, it does not appear to have affected its existing licensing. According to Amnesty Poland, these revelations demonstrate once again why governments must commit to end any surveillance that violates human rights and the need for a global moratorium on the export, sale, transfer and use of surveillance equipment until a robust regulatory framework is in place.

Not only Poland…

In July 2021 a consortium of media outlets revealed that the Pegasus spyware was used extensively by several governments to spy on lawyers, journalists, political opponents and human rights activists. Several victims of illegal surveillance were identified in Hungary and France, where the governments initially denied being clients of NSO Group, before admitting to having purchased the software. In an open letter published on 3 December 2021 and addressed to EU foreign ministers, the NGOs and experts demanded the European Commission follow the example of the United States, which on 3 November blacklisted the NSO Group for "engaging in activities that are contrary to the national security of the United States". According to the signatories, including Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and Electronic Frontier Foundation, the EU human rights sanctions regime would allow it to adopt targeted sanctions against entities deemed responsible for violations or abuses.


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