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Inquiry of the use of spyware

European Parliament inquiry accepts spyware but wants better control

Spyware have been used to secretly monitor politicians, journalists and civil rights activists. A European Parliament committee accepts the use of spyware but says it must be controlled better. The Parliament’s spyware inquiry committee wants a Tech Lab as an independent research institute to investigate surveillance and provide legal and technological support. 

The committee has, after a year long inquiry of the the use of Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware, adopted its final report and recommendations, condemning spyware abuses in several EU member states.

The report says that EU governance structures cannot effectively deal with such attacks and say reforms are needed.

The full parliament is expected to vote on the proposals during the plenary session starting 12 June.

The MEPs report condemn major violations of EU law in Poland and Hungary, where the respective governments have dismantled independent oversight mechanisms. 

For Hungary, MEPs argue that the use of spyware has been “part of a calculated and strategic campaign to destroy media freedom and freedom of expression by the government.” 

In Poland, the use of Pegasus has been part of “a system for the surveillance of the opposition and critics of the government — designed to keep the ruling majority and the government in power”.

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The committee calls on Hungary and Poland to comply with European Court of Human Rights judgements and restore judicial independence and oversight bodies. They should also ensure independent and specific judicial authorisation before the deployment of spyware and judicial review afterwards, launch credible investigations into abuse cases, and ensure citizens have access to proper legal redress.

On Greece, MEPs say spyware use “does not seem to be part of an integral authoritarian strategy, but rather a tool used on an ad hoc basis for political and financial gains”. 

Greece has “a fairly robust legal framework in principle”,  but legislative amendments have weakened safeguards. As a result, spyware has been used against journalists, politicians and businesspersons, and exported to countries with poor human rights records.

MEPs call on the government to “urgently restore and strengthen the institutional and legal safeguards”, repeal export licences that are not in line with EU export control legislation, and respect the independence of the Hellenic Authority for Communication Security and Privacy (ADAE). 

The committee says that Cyprus has played a major role as an export hub for spyware, and should repeal all export licences it has issued that are not in line with EU legislation.

On Spain, the inquiry found that the country “has an independent justice system with sufficient safeguards”, but some questions on spyware use remain. Noting that the government is already working to address shortcomings, MEPs call on authorities to ensure “full, fair and effective” investigations, especially into the 47 cases where it is unclear who authorised the deployment of spyware, and to make sure targets have real legal remedies.

The report says spyware should only be used in member states where allegations of spyware abuse have been thoroughly investigated, national legislation is in line with recommendations of the Venice Commission and EU Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights case law, Europol is involved in investigations, and export licences not in line with export control rules have been repealed. 

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By December 2023, the Commission should assess whether these conditions have been fulfilled in a public report.

MEPs want EU rules on the use of spyware by law enforcement, which should only be authorised in exceptional cases for a pre-defined purpose and a limited time.

Committee Chair Jeroen Lenaers (EPP, NL) says the “inquiry has made it clear that spyware has been used to violate fundamental rights and endanger democracy in several EU member states, Poland and Hungary being the most blatant cases.” 

“Because we acknowledge that it (spyware) can – when used in a controlled manner – be an important tool to combat crimes like terrorism. Our committee has formulated a wide range of proposals to regulate the use of spyware, while respecting national security competences. Now the Commission and member states should do their part and transpose our recommendations into concrete legislation to protect the rights of citizens.”

Rapporteur Sophie In ‘t Veld (Renew, NL) says: “Not one victim of spyware abuse has been awarded justice. Not one government has really been held accountable.” 

“Digital tools have empowered us all in various ways, but they have made governments far more powerful. We have to close that gap.”

MEPs adopted the report, detailing the findings of the inquiry, with 30 votes in favour, 3 against, and 4 abstaining, and a text outlining recommendations for the future with 30 votes in favour, 5 against, and 2 abstaining.

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