Spain’s top court calls NSO Group boss to testify in spying case

The logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group is seen at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021. REUTERS-Amir Cohen

Spain’s High Court has called the chief executive officer of Israel’s software firm NSO Group to testify as a witness in a case concerning the hacking of the mobile phones of top politicians with software that was developed by the firm.

Judge Jose Luis Calama will travel to Israel to question Shalev Hulio as part of a so-called rogatory commission to investigate the use of Pegasus, the court said on Tuesday in a statement.

No date was given for the testimony and there was no immediate comment from the NSO Group or Hulio.

The court’s announcement came after Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said last month that Spain will “strengthen judicial control” over its secret services in the wake of the hacking scandal, which broke in April when it emerged the phones of Catalan separatist leaders had been tapped by Spanish intelligence services using the Pegasus spyware.

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The controversy later widened when the government confirmed the phones of Sanchez and the defence and interior ministers were also targeted in an “external attack” with the same software.

The ongoing affair has sparked a crisis between Sanchez’s minority government and the Catalan pro-independence party ERC.

Sanchez’s fragile coalition relies on the ERC to pass legislation in parliament and remain in power until the next general election due at the end of 2023.

The government last month sacked the head of Spain’s CNI intelligence agency, Paz Esteban, over the controversy. She was the first woman to lead the agency.

Her dismissal came after she told a parliamentary committee that 18 Catalan separatists, including Pere Aragones, the head of Catalonia’s regional government, had been spied on by the CNI but always with court approval.

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Canadian cybersecurity watchdog Citizen Lab had said in April that the phones of more than 60 people linked to the Catalan separatist movement had been tapped using Pegasus spyware after a failed independence bid in 2017.

That came after Pegasus, which can switch on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvest its data, was engulfed in controversy last July after several media outlets reported that governments around the world had used it to spy on opponents.

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