Alleged spyware abuses convince EU lawmakers to urge sales ban

Lawmakers have called for a conditional ban on the sale of spyware in the European Union after an inquiry into allegations that such technology has been abused to hack the phones of government critics and journalists in Hungary, Poland, Spain and Greece, according to Bloomberg.

Members of a special European parliament committee organized to investigate abuses of surveillance technology on Monday voted for an overhaul of rules governing the sale and use of spyware, a kind of malicious software that can be used to remotely access a mobile phone or computer and covertly record audio and steal data.

The committee accused the Hungarian government of waging “a calculated and strategic campaign to destroy media freedom and freedom of expression.” Lawmakers also said spyware had been used in Poland to target government critics and “keep the ruling majority and the government in power.” In Greece, spyware had been deployed on “an ad hoc basis for political and financial gains,” the committee said. 

The Hungarian government has previously said that it has followed the country’s laws when using spyware. The Polish government has denied using it to target opponents. In December, Greece’s parliament passed a bill proposing reforms to the country’s intelligence service and banning the sale of spyware.

The European parliamentary committee was formed in early 2022 after a consortium of news organizations published allegations that 50,000 people had been targeted by governments using surveillance technology sold by the Israeli vendor NSO Group. The alleged targets included politicians, business leaders, journalists and activists. NSO has insisted its technology is sold to governments to aid investigations into serious crime and terrorism.

In a series of recommendations published alongside the report, the committee said that a conditional moratorium should be immediately enforced across the bloc on the sale, acquisition, transfer and use of spyware. 

The moratorium could be lifted on a country-by-country basis provided conditions are met, such as committing to follow human rights law and investigating and resolving any alleged spyware abuses.

“The unimpeded use of commercial spyware without proper judicial oversight poses a threat to European democracy, as long as there is no accountability,” said Sophie In ’t Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament and the lead author of the report. “Digital tools have empowered us all in various ways, but they have made governments far more powerful. We have to close that gap.”

The European Parliament is expected to vote in June on whether to endorse the committee’s recommendations and report. The recommendations are non-binding, but the committee hopes that they will provide impetus for the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, to introduce reforms. In ’t Veld urged the Commission to act, saying it had a “moral duty” to do so. “If they let this pass, if they allow this to happen in the European Union, then they are complicit in the destruction of democracy,” she said in a press conference on Tuesday.