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Mass wiretapping of Catalan politicians

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An investigation by the Canadian research institute Citizen Lab cited by the New Yorker has shown that in recent years the phones of more than 60 prominent Catalan politicians, activists and journalists and people close to them have been intercepted, infected and spied on through the controversial “spyware” Pegasus, a software created to spy on the activities on smartphones of terrorists and other criminals developed by NSO, a controversial Israeli company.

Already in July 2020 an investigation carried out by the Guardian together with the País had shown how the phones of the president of the Catalan parliament Roger Torrent and at least three other people close to the pro-independence government had been intercepted the previous year. But now it is known that the list of spied people is much longer and that many of them had or have had to do directly with the movement to obtain independence from Spain: according to Citizen Lab, the government could be behind the wiretapping. Spanish.

The news of the release of the Citizen Lab report was given exclusively on Monday by the New Yorker, who spoke of it as the “largest series of attacks and interceptions of this type documented so far” . The Canadian research institute, which defined the case as “CatalanGate”, instead noted in a precise manner that “every Catalan president since 2010 has been intercepted or infected with Pegasus during their mandate, before or after its conclusion”.

In addition to the former Catalan presidents Artur Mas, Carles Puigdemont and Quim Torra, the current one, Pere Aragonès, was also intercepted. Together with them, the phones of various Catalan parliamentarians, politicians and members of the European Parliament were also spied, as well as those of the leaders of the two main civic organizations for the independence of Catalonia, Assemblea Nacional Catalana and Òmnium Cultural. In some cases, lawyers or family members of the people involved were also intercepted, such as the journalist Marcela Topor, Puigdemont's wife, spied between 2019 and 2020.

According to the investigation, at least 63 people were intercepted with Pegasus, at least four with another spyware called Candiru and at least two with both.

– Read also: The investigation into smartphones of journalists and activists spied by governments

Spyware such as Pegasus and Candiru are not recognized by antivirus and generally exploit software vulnerabilities (so-called “bugs”) to infiltrate smartphones and have access to images and messages also encrypted. Phones are infected, for example, from SMS containing fake links and referring to infected sites: after which, among other things, it is possible to see what they contain, but also to listen to telephone conversations, remotely activate the microphone and the camera, or add or delete content from their memory.

Officially Pegasus is only sold to governments or government intelligence agencies for the interception of terrorists and criminals, but recently it has been observed how it has been used frequently to spy on journalists, politicians and activists, both in Europe and abroad. Candiru, on the other hand, was created in 2014 by two former NSO employees and was found for example on the phones of Palestinian and Turkish citizens.

Citizen Lab says that for now there is no clear evidence to conclude ” in a definitive way “that Catalan politicians and activists have been intercepted on behalf of a specific body, but argues that some elements would indicate” a link with the Spanish authorities “, as part of a possible espionage operation for political purposes. The hypothesis is that the Spanish government may have used these spyware to intercept people heavily involved in the process of gaining the independence of Catalonia.

Our latest research is a story of secret hacking capabilities, how a government used them, and the threat they pose to fundamental rights and democracy.https: //t.co/0EQu71zI7h

– Citizen Lab (@citizenlab) April 18, 2022

Relations between Catalan separatists and Spanish governments – both right and left – have been tense for many years, and have worsened significantly since the referendum on independence of Catalonia organized in October 2017 by the then Catalan president Puigdemont without the authorization of the government of Madrid.

As explained by the País, Spanish intelligence keeps an eye on the activities of the Catalan separatists since 2015, but the law allows the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia, the Spanish services, to intercept communications private only with the permission of a magistrate of the Supreme Court, the highest judicial body in the country. The authorization must also be renewed every three months.

In any case, sources of the Ministry of the Interior have argued that “neither the ministry, nor the national police, nor the Guardia Civil they have never had any connection with NSO and therefore have never used its services “. NSO for its part does not disclose the names of its customers for reasons of confidentiality; on the basis of some unofficial reconstructions released as early as 2020, however, among these there would also be the Spanish government.

L'operació d'espionatge massiu contraindependentisme català és una vergonya injustificable. Un atac als drets fonamentals ia la democràcia extremadament greu. An exemple més de la repressió contra un moviment pacífic i cívic. Arribarem fins on calgui.

– Pere Aragonès i Garcia 🎗 (@perearagones) April 18, 2022

The spread of the report sparked indignant comments from Catalan separatists and civil rights organizations, who harshly criticized the alleged wiretapping by the Spanish government.

Aragonès, the current president of the Catalan government, has wrote on Twitter that «the mass espionage operation against the independence movement of Catalonia is an inexcusable shame. An extremely serious attack on fundamental rights and democracy ». Puigdemont instead defined the intercepted persons as “victims of the dirty war of the Spanish state against a legitimate idea”, comparing their treatment to that of the members of the Basque terrorist organization ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), which claimed for over forty years the independence of the Basque Country.

Amnesty International also expressed itself on the matter, which independently reviewed the report by Citizen Lab and was able to verify evidence of attacks and interceptions in all cases found by the 'institute. Amnesty asked the Spanish government to clarify whether it used Pegasus or other spyware to intercept Catalan politicians, activists and journalists, and invited it to open “a detailed and independent investigation” to investigate the cases of the people identified by Citizen Lab.

Hem estat espiats de manera massive i il·legal a través d'un programa que només poden tenir els Estats. Polítics, advocats i activists, víctimes de la guerre bruta de l'Estat espanyol per lluitar against a legitimate idea. #CatalanGatehttps: //t.co/GcnbCst2kh

– krls.eth / Carles Puigdemont (@KRLS) April 18, 2022

– Read also: The end of the ETA