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Spain’s spy chief sacked over Pegasus spyware scandal

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Paz Esteban, the head of Spain’s National Intelligence Center (CNI), who has been fired (file photo) 9

Spain has fired the director of its top intelligence agency over the hacking of politicians’ mobile phones with the Israeli spyware Pegasus.

Citing unidentified government sources, Spanish media reported on Tuesday that Paz Esteban, the first woman to head Spain’s National Intelligence Center (CNI), had been fired.

The country’s Defense Minister Margarita Robles, whose ministry oversees the agency, said that Esteban would be replaced.

“Full security does not exist, we have a series of threats regarding security which get bigger each day,” the minister said.

Esteban reportedly admitted in a closed-door committee of the parliament last week that her agency had legally hacked the phones of several Catalan separatists. She confirmed that 18 members of the Catalan independence movement had been spied on with judicial approval.

According to reports, one of those targeted was the current Catalan regional president, Pere Aragonès.

Esteban’s apparent admission came two weeks after cybersecurity experts said at least 63 people connected with the Catalan independence movement had been targeted with the Pegasus spyware.

Catalonia’s leftist pro-independence party, ERC, a key ally of the Spanish minority government, had demanded that Madrid take measures to restore confidence.

Esteban’s agency also came under scrutiny after the Spanish government said the phones of the prime minister and the defense minister had been targeted with Pegasus.

The government spokesperson Isabel Rodriguez said on Tuesday that Pegasus had also been detected on the mobile phone of Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska last year.

The Pegasus software silently hacks into a mobile phone and intercepts all communications, including encrypted messages. It can also turn any phone into a listening device and enable a Pegasus operator to remotely activate the targeted phone’s recorder and camera.

The Israeli NSO Group, which owns Pegasus, produces sophisticated malware and makes them available to countries worldwide regardless of their own technical abilities. The NSO claims the software is only sold to government agencies to target criminals and “terrorists,” with the green light of Israeli authorities.

It has come under fire by global rights groups for violating users’ privacy around the world.

The European Union’s data protection watchdog has called for a ban on Pegasus.

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