GENEVA (2 February 2023) – Spanish authorities must thoroughly investigate reports that Pegasus and Candiru spyware was used to target Catalan public figures and activists in Spain following the independence bid in 2017, UN experts* said today.
Between 2017-2020, the devices of at least 65 Catalan minority politicians and activists were reportedly targeted by a complex and sophisticated spying programme, whose victims included Catalan minority leaders, Members of the European Parliament, legislators, jurists, and members of civil society organisations, the experts said.
Following the referendum for Catalonia’s independence in 2017, Spanish authorities arrested leaders of the Catalonian independence movement on charges of sedition. Most incidents of spying against Catalan leaders and activists took place in 2017, soon after the region’s bid for independence.
According to the NSO Group the Pegasus spyware was sold to governments as a law enforcement tool. The Spanish National Intelligence Center would be one of NSO Group’s customers, according to reports.
The UN experts also said they are particularly concerned by the extent and sophistication of the reported spying programme, over a long period of time and against minority leaders and activists who did not engage in any violent activities. They are concerned that the widespread use of this type of spyware may lead to increased self-censorship, which has a chilling effect on the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and the rights of freedom of assembly, as well as other violations of the rights of minorities and their effective participation in public life.
They recalled that minorities are specifically protected by international and European human rights standards, and a targeted spying programme against a minority group may constitute a serious violation of these standards.
The experts said that according to reports, many victims were targeted using SMS-based attacks. The attacks had involved operators sending text messages containing malicious links designed to trick targets into clicking on them. “The sophistication and personalisation of the messages varied across attempts, but reflect a detailed understanding of the target’s habits, interests, activities, and concerns. In many cases, either the timing or the contents of the text were highly customised to the targets and indicated the likely use of other forms of surveillance on them,” they added. Victims had also been targeted using highly personalised official notifications from Spanish government entities, including tax and social security authorities, the experts noted.
“For example, a message sent to one victim included a portion of his actual official tax identification number, suggesting that the attackers had access to this information,” they said.
In a letter dated 24 October 2022 the experts contacted the Government of Spain about the issue. On 22 December 2022, the Government replied informing that investigations were ongoing, and that it was not possible to pronounce on cases which were pending judicial investigation.
“Spanish authorities must conduct a full, fair, and effective investigation into these allegations, publish the findings and stop any unlawful interference into the fundamental rights of the Catalan minority activists in Spain,” the experts said. “We are looking forward to the outcomes of the ongoing judicial investigation,” the UN experts said.
“We further wish to reiterate our call for a global moratorium on the sale and transfer of surveillance technology, until robust regulations are in place that guarantee its use in compliance with international human rights standards. We urge Spain to join this global moratorium, that was also joined by then High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet,” the UN experts said.
“We are also deeply concerned by what appears to be a very troubling interference into the human rights of Catalan leaders and other minority activists to freely hold and express their views, exchange information and ideas, assemble peacefully and participate in associations. They are entitled to a private life, the privacy of correspondence and to be treated equally before the law,” they said.
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*The experts: Mr. Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues; Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Ms. Irene Kahn, Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.