Catalan leader asks police to investigate alleged Madrid cyber espionage

BARCELONA (Reuters) – Catalonia’s regional chief will ask police to investigate allegations of spying by the Spanish government, he said on Tuesday, after a rights group found his phone and those of dozens of other independence leaders were infected with spyware.

On Monday, Canadian group Citizen Lab said that following a failed independence bid in 2017, more than 60 people linked to the Catalan separatist movement, including current leader Pere Aragones and several of his predecessors , had been the target of the “Pegasus” spyware. manufactured by the Israeli group NSO.

“A democratic state does not spy on its citizens…a democratic state does not listen to the private conversations of its political opponents,” Aragones said at a press conference.

He said the allegations had seriously damaged relations with the central authorities in Madrid and that “normal political relations cannot be restored until they take responsibility”.

The government denied illegally spying on Catalan pro-independence leaders, but did not say whether it had undertaken court-approved electronic surveillance.

“The government has nothing to hide,” spokeswoman Isabel Rodriguez said, adding that she would cooperate fully with any investigation.

Citizen Lab said it could not directly attribute the spying operations, but circumstantial evidence pointed to Spanish authorities.

When asked if Spain has ever engaged in legally sanctioned electronic surveillance of Catalan leaders or if Madrid has access to Pegasus, which can be used to remotely break into iPhones, Rodriguez said she could not answer questions on these national security matters which are classified.

Citizen Lab is known as one of the leading mercenary spyware research groups within the cybersecurity industry.

He also revealed this week that he had warned UK officials that electronic devices connected to government networks, including the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Office, appeared to be targeted by Pegasus.

The group began its Spanish investigation in 2020 after researchers working with Facebook’s instant messaging service, WhatsApp, warned several Catalan lawmakers that their phones had been hacked. A Barcelona court then opened an investigation after two lawmakers filed a complaint against the government.

The El Pais newspaper reported on Wednesday that the investigation had stalled for more than a year as the court awaited a response from the Israeli government.

(Reporting by Emma Pinedo, Inti Landauro and Joan Faus; Writing by Nathan Allen; Editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean)

Edward K. Thompson