A cybersecurity rights group claims dozens of phones belonging to prominent Catalunya independence politicians were hacked by sophisticated spyware.

The software is normally available at only a ‘government level’.

The phone of current Catalan president, Pere Aragones, was among those tapped, according to research group Citizens Lab, which is affiliated with the University of Toronto.

Citizens Lab said it found at least 65 people were infected or targeted by mercenary spyware sold by two Israeli companies, Candiru and NSO Group.

Catalunya president, Pere Aragones, said: “The operation of massive espionage against Catalan independence is an unjustifiable shame, and an attack on fundamental rights and democracy.”

He called on the Spanish government to offer an explanation.

Preparatory Meeting Sanchez And Aragones
PM PEDRO SANCHEZ AND ARAGONES IN BARCELONA LAST SEPTEMBER(Cordon Press image)

NSO’s Pegasus system has been used internationally to hack journalists and human rights campaigners.

Citizens Lab said that they could not find enough proof to attribute the Catalan hacks to a ‘single entity’.

It did add that the ‘range of circumstantial evidence’ pointed to a likely ‘nexus’ from the Spanish government over the Catalan hacks.

In a statement on Monday, Spain’s Interior Ministry said that no ministry department, nor the Guardia Civil or Policia Nacional ‘have ever had any relationship with NSO and therefore never used any of its services’.

NSO has been accused by the U.S government of conducting ‘transnational repression’ and it has also faced legal challenges from major technology firms.

Citizens Lab said its investigations into the use in Spain of Pegasus and spyware developed by Candiru — another Israeli firm founded by former NSO employees — started in mid-2020 after a handful of cases targeting high-profile Catalan pro-independence individuals were revealed.

The hacks had the potential to control smartphone microphones and cameras.

Researchers also found several examples of NSO tools using so-called ‘zero-click’ exploits that infect mobile phones without any kind of interaction needed by phone owners.

An angry Pere Aragones said: “No excuses are valid. To spy on representatives of citizens, lawyers or activists of civil rights is a red line.”

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