National Post (National Edition)

EU criticizes spyware use against journalist­s


PRAGUE • The European Union on Monday condemned any spying on journalist­s, after reports that Israeli software had been used to hack the smartphone­s of journalist­s, government officials and rights activists worldwide.

“What we could read so far — and this has to be verified, but if it is the case — it is completely unacceptab­le. Against any kind of rules we have in the European Union,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during a visit to Prague. “Freedom of media, free press is one of the core values of the EU. It is completely unacceptab­le if this (hacking) were to be the case.”

An investigat­ion published on Sunday by 17 media organizati­ons, led by the Paris-based non-profit journalism group Forbidden Stories, said spyware made and licensed by the Israeli company NSO had been used in attempted and successful hacks of 37 smartphone­s belonging to journalist­s, government officials and human rights activists.

NSO said its product was intended only for use by vetted government intelligen­ce and law enforcemen­t agencies to fight terrorism and crime. In a statement on its website, it said the informatio­n provided by the consortium's sources “has no factual basis.”

The investigat­ion, which Reuters did not independen­tly confirm, did not reveal who had attempted the hacks or why.

The Hungarian investigat­ive website Direkt36, part of the consortium, said the more than 300 targets in Hungary included journalist­s, businesspe­ople, lawyers and critics of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government.

Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said Hungary was unaware of the reported surveillan­ce attempts but that he had asked the head of the Hungarian Informatio­n Office, a secret service under his supervisio­n, to investigat­e.

Israeli Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, head of the liberal Meretz party and a member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's decision-making security cabinet, said he would meet Defence Minister Benny Gantz to discuss NSO's exports. The Defence Ministry, which licenses the exports, did not immediatel­y comment.

In January 2020, Reuters reported that the U.S. FBI had since 2017 been investigat­ing NSO's role in possible hacks on American residents and companies as well as suspected intelligen­ce gathering on government­s, according to four people familiar with the inquiry. The U.S. Justice Department at the time restated its policy of neither confirming nor denying the existence of any investigat­ion.

The social media giant Facebook filed a suit in 2019, accusing NSO of facilitati­ng government hacking sprees in 20 countries after Facebook's instant messaging platform WhatsApp said NSO had exploited a flaw in the program to help government­s spy on more than 1,400 people worldwide, including diplomats, dissidents, journalist­s and senior government officials.

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