NSO Boss To Be Questioned By Spanish Judge Over Spyware Claim

The boss of Israeli surveillance specialist NSO Group is facing the prospect of having to testify in an Spanish investigation over the alleged use of its Pegasus software, to spy on Spanish politicians.

Reuters reported that on Tuesday, Spain’s High Court called CEO Shalev Hulio to testify as a witness in the case. Rather that travelling to Spain, it seems that Judge Jose Luis Calama will instead travel to Israel to question the CEO.

The case is part of a so-called rogatory commission to investigate the spying, the court was quoted by Reuters as saying on Tuesday, without providing a date for the testimony.

Spanish investigation

According to Reuters, the judge opened the investigation after the government said Pegasus software had been used to spy on ministers, triggering a political crisis in Spain that led to the resignation of its spy chief Paz Esteban last month.

Last month the Spanish government said the mobile phones of prime minister Pedro Sanchez, defence minister Margarita Robles, and Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska were infected by Pegasus spyware in 2021.

The Spanish government hasn’t elaborated on the circumstances of the snooping on the ministers, or who was behind it.

However a government spokesperson did say “the interventions were illicit and external. External means carried out by non-official bodies and without state authorisation.”

The remarks suggested that the spyware was activated either by unauthorised players within Spain or from abroad.

Spain’s government is also currently facing intense pressure over how Pegasus, allegedly came to be used to monitor the phones of more than 60 members of the Catalan independence movement, including Catalan president Pere Aragones and three of his predecessors.

Following the disclosure of those hacks in April by Canada’s Citizen Lab, the minority government’s key ally in parliament, Catalonia’s pro-independence party ERC, said it would not support the government until it takes measures to restore confidence.

The Catalan government has blamed Spain’s National Intelligence Centre (CNI) for the hacks.

Spyware furore

The Spanish High Court reportedly has already asked NSO to give information on some aspects of the Pegasus spyware.

Last year it revealed that the phone numbers for 14 heads of state, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Pakistan’s Imran Khan and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, as well as 600 government officials and politicians from 34 countries, had appeared in a leaked database at the heart of an investigative project into Pegasus.

In November NSO was officially blacklisted by the US Commerce Department. NSO was placed on the US entity list.

Being placed on the Entity List, means that exports to the firm from US companies are restricted.

NSO response

NSO for its part, has always maintained that it sells its Pegasus software to governments and law enforcement agencies for the purpose of tracking down terrorists and other criminals.

“NSO operates under a strict legal framework, and is confident that this will be the result any government inquiry will reach,” the company told Reuters in an email, without detailing whether its CEO Shalev Hulio will respond to the questions of the Spanish judge.

The High Court also called Parliamentary Affairs Minister Felix Bolanos to testify on 5 July as a witness and said the judge had already interviewed former Spanish spy chief Esteban.

Earlier this week the US Supreme Court asked the Biden administration for its thoughts on whether the justices should hear a case on whether Meta’s WhatsApp division can pursue its lawsuit of NSO Group.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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