The use of mercenary spyware has increased considerably over the last few years. The idea is to spy on other parties and hack into their surveillance. There are a number of active cyber mercenary companies that sell their spyware through private means. NSO Group and Candiru are two well-known Israeli companies that have been selling mercenary spyware.
One of their products is Pegasus which is military-grade spyware. It has been used around the world to hack into the phones of journalists and human rights activists, various iOS and Android users, and a number of other victims. In fact, NSO Group has been even dragged to court by major technology companies.
Just recently, according to a cybersecurity rights nonprofit on Monday, the phones of a dozen pro-independence supporters in Northeastern Catalonia, including the regional chief and other elected officials in Spain, were hacked by spyware that is only available to governments.
Citizens Lab, which is a research group affiliated with the University of Toronto, said that based on a large-scale investigation which was conducted along with Catalan civil society groups, they believe at least 65 individuals were targeted or became a victim of “mercenary spyware.”
Catalonia longs to be separated from Spain; as a result, the Spanish government has been on edge at all times.
Citizens Lab stated that they launched their investigations into Pegasus, the spyware developed by Candiru, back in 2020, when they came across a handful of high-profile cases targeting Catalan pro-independence individuals.
Although the group said, they couldn’t pinpoint any conclusive evidence for hacking into a specific entity. They still believe they found enough circumstantial evidence to pinpoint the ties.
Citizens Lab stated on their website, “However, a range of circumstantial evidence points to a strong nexus with one or more entities within the Spanish government.”
On the other hand, the Interior Ministry heavily denied any involvement of the Spanish government, the police, or Civil Guard enforcement bodies, “have ever had any relation with NSO and have therefore never contracted any of its services.”
The statement also said that in Spain, “All intervention of communications are conducted under judicial order and in full respect of legality.”
Researchers have found that Pegasus is capable of infiltrating phones and gathering intel or personal data discreetly, all the while controlling the smartphones’ microphones and cameras. Pegasus has a special feature called “zero-click,” which can infect targeted phones without any user interaction with the mobile phone.
Citizens Lab found signs of “zero-click” on infected devices of Catalans using older operating systems at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020.
The target individuals were three European lawmakers who were representing Catalan separatist parties, two members of two prominent pro-independence civil society groups, their lawyers, and elected officials at various levels, including three former regional presidents, including Quim Torra while he was holding office.
Citizens Lab further revealed that the current Catalan President Pere Aragonès’s phone was also infected when he was serving as a deputy to Quim Torra during the 2018-2020 administration. Aragonè himself said, “the operation of massive espionage against Catalan independentism is an unjustifiable shame, an attack on fundamental rights and democracy.”
The President challenged the Spanish government to provide some answers, given the fact that the software could only be acquired by government entities, in a series of tweets he posted on Twitter. He wrote,
“No excuses are valid. To spy on representatives of citizens, lawyers, or activists of civil rights is a red line.”
Whereas Spain’s Ministry of Defense which is responsible for intelligence services and the country’s armed forces, along with the prime minister’s office, didn’t respond to questions from the American Press immediately.