Spain spy chief in hot seat over phone hacking scandal

·3-min read

Spain's top spymaster was grilled behind closed doors by lawmakers on Thursday over mobile phone hacking revelations that have roiled the country's fragile coalition government.

Paz Esteban, the first woman to head Spain's CNI intelligence agency, appeared before a parliamentary committee for questioning over the affair which has dominated headlines for days.

The scandal broke last month when Canadian cybersecurity watchdog Citizen Lab said the phones of over 60 people linked to the Catalan separatist movement had been tapped using Pegasus spyware after a failed independence bid in 2017.

Catalan separatists immediately pointed the finger at the CNI and threatened to withdraw their support for Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's minority government unless heads roll.

Sanchez's government depends on Catalan separatist party ERC to pass legislation and remain in power until the next general election due in late 2023.

The government said on Monday that the phones of Sanchez and Defence Minister Margarita Robles, whose ministry oversees the CNI, were hacked last year by the same spyware, made by Israel's NSO group.

Sanchez is the first serving head of government confirmed to have been targeted by controversial Pegasus spyware.

The revelation raised questions over who is to blame and whether Spain has adequate security protocols.

Robles herself faced questioning on Wednesday during an open-door parliamentary commission meeting, and said the CNI always acted "within the law".

Catalan separatists and hard-left party Podemos, Sanchez's junior coalition partners, call for the defence minister resign over the affair.

Pablo Echenique, a top Podemos member, said Robles "knows what she should do for her own dignity as well as for the dignity of the government".

- 'Spies targeted 18 separatists' -

Esteban acknowledged during the hearing that the CNI spied on Catalan separatists but always with court approval, Cuca Gamarra, the conservative Popular Party's number two, told reporters after she left the meeting.

Spanish media reported that Esteban told the committee the CNI targeted 18 Catalan separatists, including regional Catalan leader Pere Aragones, far less than alleged by Citizen Lab.

Asked if Esteban, who has headed the CNI since 2020, will remain in her post, government spokeswoman Isabel Rodriguez said on Tuesday she did not want to "talk of future scenarios".

Spanish media blame Morocco for the hacking of Sanchez and Robles' phones since Rabat was locked in a diplomatic spat with Madrid at the time.

But Spain says it has no evidence of who may be responsible.

Pegasus spyware infiltrates mobile phones to extract data or activate a camera or microphone to spy on their owners.

The Israel-based NSO Group, which owns Pegasus, claims the software is only sold to government agencies to target criminals and terrorists, with the green light of Israeli authorities.

The company has been criticised by global rights groups for violating users' privacy around the world and it faces lawsuits from major tech firms such as Apple and Microsoft.

Amnesty International, the London-based rights group, said the software has been used to hack up to 50,000 mobile phones worldwide.

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