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Polish leader admits his country bought powerful Israeli spyware

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Poland's ruling Law and Justice party
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, speaks at a news conference in Warsaw in October.
(Czarek Sokolowski / Associated Press)

Poland’s most powerful politician has acknowledged that the country bought advanced spyware from the Israeli surveillance software maker NSO Group but denied that it was being used to target his political opponents.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s ruling conservative party, Law and Justice, said in an interview that the software, Pegasus, is being used by secret services in many countries to combat crime and corruption.

He said the use of such spyware arose in response to the growing use of encryption to mask data in transit. By hacking phones, where the data have been de-encrypted, it lets authorities monitor communications and real-time conversations.

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“It would be bad if the Polish services did not have this type of tool,” Kaczynski said in an interview to be published in the Monday edition of the weekly Sieci, excerpts of which were published Friday by the wPolityce.pl news portal.

Kaczynski’s allies had denied that Poland purchased and used Pegasus.

The admissions by Kaczynski in the interview follow exclusive reports by the Associated Press that Citizen Lab, a cyber watchdog group at the University of Toronto, found that three Polish government critics were hacked with NSO’s Pegasus spyware.

On Thursday, Amnesty International independently verified the finding by Citizen Lab that Polish Sen. Krzysztof Brejza’s phone had been hacked multiple times in 2019 when he was running the opposition’s parliamentary election campaign.

Text messages stolen from Brejza’s phone were doctored and aired by state-controlled TV as part of a smear campaign in the heat of the race, which the populist ruling party went on to narrowly win.

An investigation by a global media consortium alleges that military-grade malware from Israel-based NSO Group is being used to spy on journalists, human rights activists and political dissidents.

Brejza now contends that the election was not fair since the ruling party would have had access to his campaign’s plans.

The revelations have rocked Poland, drawing comparisons to the 1970s Watergate scandal in the U.S. and eliciting calls for an investigative commission in parliament.

Kaczynski said he sees no reason to set up such a commission, and he denied that the surveillance played any role in the outcome of the 2019 elections.

“There is nothing here, no fact, except the hysteria of the opposition. There is no Pegasus case, no surveillance,” Kaczynski said. “No Pegasus, no services, no secretly obtained information played any role in the 2019 election campaign. They lost because they lost. They shouldn’t look for such excuses today.”

Apple released an emergency security software patch to fix a vulnerability that an internet watchdog group says allowed spyware from the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire firm, NSO Group, to infect the iPhone of a Saudi activist without any user interaction

The other two Polish targets confirmed by Citizen Lab were Roman Giertych, a lawyer who represents opposition politicians in a number of politically sensitive cases, and Ewa Wrzosek, an independent-minded prosecutor.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the Citizen Lab-AP findings “fake news” and suggested that a foreign intelligence service could have done the spying — an idea dismissed by critics who said no other government would have interest in the three Polish targets.

Late last month, in a statement now contradicted by Kaczynski, Deputy Defense Minister Wojciech Skurkiewicz said that “the Pegasus system is not in the possession of the Polish services. It is not used to track or surveil anyone in our country.”

Media reports say Poland purchased Pegasus in 2017, using money from the so-called Justice Fund, which is meant to help the victims of crimes and rehabilitate criminals. According to investigations by the TVN broadcaster and Gazeta Wyborcza daily, it is used by the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau, a special service created to combat corruption in public life that is under the political control of the ruling party.

“The public money was spent on an important public purpose, related to the fight against crime and the protection of citizens,” Kaczynski said.

Dozens of high-profile cases of Pegasus abuse have been uncovered since 2015, many by a global media consortium last year, with the NSO Group malware employed to eavesdrop on journalists, politicians, diplomats, lawyers and human rights activists from the Middle East to Mexico.

The Polish hacks are considered particularly egregious because they occurred not in an autocracy but in a European Union member nation.

Amnesty International’s Poland director, Anna Blaszczak, said in a statement Friday that spying on the opposition would be consistent with the behavior of the Law and Justice government, which the EU has increasingly criticized for judicial interference and other actions regarded as anti-democratic.

“These findings are shocking but not surprising. They raise serious concerns not only for politicians, but for the whole [of] Poland’s civil society in general, particularly given the context of the government’s record of persistently subverting human rights and the rule of law,” Blaszczak said.


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