BARCELONA (Reuters) – The pro-independence speaker of Catalonia’s regional parliament Roger Torrent said on Tuesday that he had been the target of political espionage via phone tapping, accusing the Spanish government of being either complicit or negligent.
Tensions between Catalonia’s separatist regional leaders and the Madrid government have been high for years, and a report in the Guardian and El Pais newspapers that Torrent’s phone was tapped is unlikely to help.
“In Spain, political espionage is being carried out against political adversaries,” Torrent said.
“If the Spanish government had knowledge of this, it would have been complicit in a crime. If it had no knowledge of it, it would be a very worrisome symptom of political negligence and lack of awareness of alleged illegal practices.”
The Spanish prime minister’s office said earlier on Tuesday the government was “not aware” of any such spying and added: “Any intervention on a mobile is always carried out in accordance with the law that requires judicial authorisation.”
A spokesman for Torrent said he was “not involved in criminal activity such as terrorism or drug trafficking that would justify a judicial order to intervene on his phone”.
The Guardian and El Pais wrote that Torrent and two other separatists were warned by researchers working with Facebook’s instant messaging service WhatsApp that their phones had been broken into with a spyware called “Pegasus”, made by Israeli company NSO Group.
NSO, whose customers include law enforcement and governments around the world, declined to say whether it had sold its Pegasus software to Spain. It said the software is operated “solely by authorised government agencies to fight terror and serious crime, and protect public safety”.
Facebook declined to comment on the allegation that Torrent’s phone was tapped.
WhatsApp said last year that 1,400 of its users had been targeted by Pegasus. It said the attack exploited its video calling system to send malware to mobile devices.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper, without citing a source, said WhatsApp believed the attacks in Spain occurred over a two week period in April to May 2019, when the 1,400 users were allegedly targeted by the spyware.
The Pegasus spyware has been linked to political surveillance in Mexico, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, according to the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which researches digital surveillance.
(Reporting by Inti Landauro, Joan Faus, Belen Carreno, Tova Cohen, Akanksha Rana; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Alison Williams and Catherine Evans)