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Use of Pegasus spyware should be banned in the EU, the bloc’s data watchdog has advised, as it is a ‘game changer’ offering unprecedented powers to interfere in the target life.

The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) said a ban was needed because the software, developed by Israeli group NSO, was capable of secretly turning a mobile phone into a surveillance device.

Capable of sending or receiving encrypted messages, downloading stored photographs, hearing voice calls, accessing messages and secretly filming through a phone’s camera, the spyware had the ability to interfere “with the most intimate aspects of our daily lives,” the authority said.

“The mounting evidence shows that highly advanced military-grade spyware like Pegasus has the potential to cause unprecedented risk and damage not only to fundamental freedoms but also to democracy and the rule of law. “, says an EDPS report.

“Pegasus constitutes a paradigm shift in terms of access to private communications and devices, which can affect the very essence of our fundamental rights, in particular the right to privacy. This fact makes its use incompatible with our democratic values.”

The EDPS said that a “ban on the development and deployment of spyware with the Pegasus capability in the EU” was the best course of action given the software’s harmful capability.

Last year, a group of media organisations, including the Guardian, revealed that Pegasus software was being used against journalists, activists and politicians in many countries, including Europe.

The investigation by the Guardian and 16 other outlets was based on forensic analysis of phones and a leaked database of 50,000 numbers, including that of French President Emmanuel Macron, European Council President Charles Michel , and other heads of state and senior officials. government, diplomatic and military officials in 34 countries.

NSO Group previously said the 50,000 figure was “exaggerated” and that the database could not be a list of numbers “targeted by governments using Pegasus”.

The EDPS noted in his report that a number of Member States had admitted to purchasing the spyware, and he said that the real list of customers “may turn out to be longer” because “it appears that a number number of Member States have at least entered into negotiations with NSO Group for the license of the product”.

Analysis of phones in Europe by the media group suggested that journalists, activists and lawyers in Hungary had been targeted by Pegasus. A senior Hungarian government official appeared to confirm in November that the state had bought the software, but this was later denied and ministers have since declined to comment.

The Hungarian Data Protection Authority has investigated the allegations and an investigation has been opened by the Budapest Regional Office of the Hungarian Public Prosecutor’s Office.

In Poland, a Senate committee in January saw documents suggesting that the country’s Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) bought Pegasus in 2017 using Justice Ministry funds. Law and Justice, the main ruling coalition party, boycotted the opposition-led Senate committee.

As MEPs in Strasbourg debated the EU’s response to the EDPS report, French EU Affairs Minister Clément Beaune condemned the use of surveillance software to infiltrate phones, but said limitations of an individual’s privacy may be necessary to combat crime and terrorism.

“The use of surveillance software can only be the exception,” he said. “This type of surveillance is such a serious invasion of privacy that it can only be used under the strictest conditions.”

EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders echoed Beaune’s comments but said the committee was monitoring ongoing investigations in Hungary and Poland.

He said: “I am aware that the Hungarian Data Protection Authority knows the conclusion of its investigation into the case. We understand that an investigation by the Budapest Regional Office of the Hungarian Public Prosecutor’s Office is still ongoing. I also know that in Poland the special committee of the senate examines the use of Pegasus. I want to assure you that the commission continues to follow the matter closely and that we are gathering information in this regard.

The European Parliament is expected to launch a committee of inquiry in April into the use of Pegasus within the EU, with intelligence agencies, officials and elected ministers expected to be called to testify.

NSO Group said it would neither confirm nor deny whether particular countries were customers. He also insists that his tools are only intended for use against criminals and terrorists and should not be used against dissidents, activists or journalists.

theguardian

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