MEPs have demanded a strong response from the EU to two member states which revealed they used Israeli spyware Pegasus to target political opponents and journalists.
“The EU’s response must be strong,” centre-right Dutch MEP Jeroen Lenaers said during a hearing with victims of surveillance at the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee on Tuesday (February 1st).
The secret surveillance that took place in a dozen countries was revealed by an international media investigation last year.
Poland and Hungary are the only two EU countries where authorities have finally acknowledged that the software was used to spy on its citizens.
“There will never be autocratic governments spying on their citizens in the EU,” Lenaers promised.
“What we heard today shows what happens when cyber weapons that were developed to fight terrorism are instead used to undermine democratic checks and balances,” said MEP Lenaers, qualifying that of a “very worrying situation”.
The new calls for action came after Hungary’s data protection authority, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government appointee Attila Péterfalvi, said on Monday that Pegasus victims were legitimate targets.
Péterfalvi also concluded that the Hungarian state had done nothing illegal. Instead, the authority would file a criminal complaint against those who uncovered the mass surveillance for possible data mishandling.
The two nationalist governments in Budapest and Warsaw have been under EU control for years for democratic backsliding.
However, the European Commission has so far been tight-lipped about what it would or could do regarding the spy scandal.
It all depends on whether the Commission services find legal grounds to challenge surveillance in an EU country – since the protection of national security is a competence of the Member States.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last year that the revelations, if true, were “completely unacceptable”.
Last month, Liberal MEPs called for a special committee of inquiry into the misuse of the Pegasus spyware by EU governments against national opposition politicians, lawyers and journalists.
So far, there is only one further committee hearing, scheduled for March 31, in the European Parliament on the issue.
“My phone was hacked”
“I was also a victim of Pegasus surveillance,” Hungarian journalist Szabolcs Panyi, working for investigative site Direkt36, who was part of the team that uncovered the mass surveillance, told MPs.
“When my phone was hacked in 2019, I was investigating Russian influence operations in Hungary and how the Orbán government is doing very little to counter the threat of Russian espionage that is endangering the security of the NATO and the European community,” he said.
Pegasus allows the attacker to turn a smartphone into a surveillance device. He can turn on the camera and microphone and read encrypted messages.
Panyi added that it was of particular concern that every time he sent an official request for comment to Hungarian authorities, it was followed by someone hacking into his phone through Pegasus.
Polish prosecutor Ewa Wrzosek was spied on by her government after launching an investigation in 2020 into whether the presidential election could endanger voters’ health at the height of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“There was no legal or factual basis to authorize surveillance of me and others, and the Secret Service who did so committed a crime,” Wrzosek said. “Any use of Pegasus is illegal under current Polish law,” she added.
“The EU cannot credibly condemn human rights abuses in the rest of the world, while turning a blind eye to domestic issues,” she said, adding that the phone hacking was the proof of the “collapse of democracy” in Poland.
“Violation of EU law”
Last week, Hungarian journalists targeted by surveillance filed the first lawsuits against the state.
The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) is filing a lawsuit on behalf of six clients, including Panyi, with Hungarian authorities, the European Commission, the European Court of Human Rights and Israel.
According to HCLU, spying on Belgian student activist Adrien Beauduin, who was studying in Hungary at the time of his surveillance, is a breach of EU law, and he has lodged a complaint with the commission.
“Using the secret service to serve those in power rather than the nation as a whole is awfully familiar in Central and Eastern Europe,” said Ádám Remport, an HCLU expert on surveillance issues.
“It is unacceptable that the operations of the national security services, which are necessarily carried out in secret, become a tool of oppression rather than a means of protecting citizens,” he added.