EU lawmakers launch plea for spyware controls

Greece, Cyprus, Poland and Hungary among countries where surveillance software needs serious checks, lawmakers say.

By Antoaneta Roussi
May 9, 2023

The European Parliament wants the bloc’s executive institution and its national governments to take urgent measures to stop spyware from being abused against political opposition, journalists and citizens.

Lawmakers in the EU parliament’s inquiry committee on the use of spyware in Europe adopted a report and recommendations on Monday, asking the European Commission to impose a range of measures by December, including reviewing licenses for the software and increase human rights protections for subjects of surveillance.

Spyware tools allow security services, governments, companies and hackers to gain access to mobile phones and other devices and snoop on data. The intrusive software came under scrutiny last year after a series of investigations and revelations showed the extent to which governments in Europe and beyond were using the tools to spy on opposition, journalists and citizens.

The EU inquiry wants to revoke spyware licenses that are not in line with the dual-use regulation; ensure governments can prove that using the technology — even in the case of national security — is in line with the bloc’s human rights and rule of law; and request that EU countries publish the number of approved and rejected requests for the use of spyware on a regular basis.

The European Parliament launched its inquiry in April 2022 following reports that at least 14 European Union governments purchased spyware. The tools have been used against some of the bloc’s most prominent leaders, including European Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and numerous opposition figures including Greek Socialist Nikos Androulakis.

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But the committee has also been mired in political discord, as revelations caused turmoil in countries like Spain and Greece.

Last year, Spanish MEPs — including a former Spanish interior minister who sits on the inquiry committee — tried to block a mission to Spain for fear of embarrassing its politicians. Meanwhile, in Greece, spyware revelations rocked the national government, and the European People’s Party voted down on the Greek recommendations in the report.

Country assessments

Following allegations that Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Poland and Spain all used the spyware against citizens in disproportionate ways, the inquiry committee also recommended specific changes for each of these nations.

For Cyprus, lawmakers found there is evidence of “maladministration” of the EU’s dual-use regulation and asked for a thorough assessment of how spyware was shipped from one country to the other within Europe. They also want the government to map the different Israeli spyware companies or those owned and run by Israeli citizens that are registered in Cyprus.

For Greece, the group asks that the government reinstates the abilities of the privacy authority (ADAE) to notify citizens of the lifting of any confidentiality of their communications. For Poland and Hungary — where lawmakers found “major” maladministration — it wants to see legislation that protects citizens and restores the independence of the judiciary.

Lawmakers want the Commission to assess whether member countries meet the requirements by November 30 and publish its findings to the public. Parliament’s report is non-binding and relies on the European Commission’s willingness to come up with measures.

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