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Spanish authorities found that the phones of the country’s prime minister and defense minister were both infected with the Pegasus spyware less than a month after a previous investigation found that the Israeli software was used to snoop on Catalan separatist leaders, the Guardian reported Monday.
Cabinet Minister Félix Bolaños said the spyware was used to extract data from the phones of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles during the period between May and June 2021.
Bolaños noted that the data breaches were not authorized by a Spanish judge, which is a legal requirement for national covert operations, according to the Associated Press. He added that Spain’s highest criminal court will investigate the case.
The announcement raised questions about who would have used the Pegasus spyware, which its manufacturer, NSO Group, claims is only available to state agencies. The Israeli-based company said it would investigate “any suspicion of misuse” of its software and would cooperate with any government probe.
The data breach occurred at a time when Spain’s Socialist-led government was handling a major diplomatic row with Morocco. At the time, Madrid was providing medical care to a prominent separatist leader of Western Sahara, a territory once under Spanish control that Morocco annexed in the 1970s.
The situation escalated when thousands of migrants pushed their way into Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta from Morocco, prompting the Spanish government to send troops to the territory to stop the influx.
Morocco denied it had encouraged migrants to make their way into Ceuta.
Meanwhile, the recent breach also came weeks after Citizen Lab, a Canadian-based cybersecurity group, found that Pegasus was used to spy on dozens of members of Catalonia’s independence movement, including the president of the northeastern Spanish region, Pere Aragonès, and three of his predecessors.
The regional government accused Spain’s National Intelligence Center (CNI) of spying on separatists. It also declared that relations with national authorities were “on hold” until full explanations are offered and those responsible are punished.
The Spanish government pledged an internal inquiry into the alleged targeting of Catalan activists, and Spain’s public ombudsman has also launched an independent probe.