The European Commission has denounced as “completely unacceptable” the use of spyware programs against journalists and individuals working in the media, following reports that an Israeli spyware application was 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,” the commission head Ursula von der Leyen said during a visit to the Czech capital of Prague on Monday.
“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.”
Von der Leyen made the comment after an investigation by 17 media organizations published on Sunday said the Pegasus spyware developed by Israeli firm NSO Group was used in attempted and successful hacks of 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials and human rights activists.
The Israeli company claimed that its product is intended only for use by the regime’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime.
According to reports, Pegasus infects individuals’ phones by sending them text messages that tempt them to click on an attached link. If the target clicks on the link, the company gains full control over the phone, including its contents and history, and the ability to activate its microphone and camera at will.
The Israeli malware has been in the headlines since 2016, when researchers accused it of helping spy on a dissident in the United Arab Emirates.
The spyware was also implicated in the gruesome killing of prominent Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered after visiting the kingdom’s consulate in Turkey’s largest city of Istanbul in October 2018 to collect documents that he needed for his planned marriage.
Former US National Security Agency contractor and whistle-blower Edward Snowden said Saudi Arabia may have used the Israeli software to track Khashoggi since the smartphone of one of the journalist's friends, who was living in exile in Canada, had been infected with Pegasus malware.
Snowden said the software allowed the Saudis to collect information about Khashoggi, and find out about his intention and plans.
The NSO Group has denied reports that its technology may have been used by the Saudis to target Khashoggi.