Poland: Nearly 600 Spied on with Pegasus

Justice Minister Bodnar speaking to reporters
Security analysts had earlier found evidence that members of the political opposition had been spied on. (Image: Justice Minister Adam Bodnar) (Source: IMAGO / SOPA Images)

The Law and Justice (PiS)-led government voted out of office last year is alleged to have spied on nearly 600 people using Pegasus intelligence software. Poland’s prosecutor general made the announcement in Warsaw last week. Those targeted by the spyware will be asked to testify.

A parliamentary commission is currently investigating whether the PiS administration, which left office in December 2023, used Pegasus to target political opponents. Last week Justice Minister and Prosecutor General Adam Bodnar submitted a preliminary report to parliament, which finds that the spyware was used to target a total of 578 people between 2017 and 2022. The largest number of cases occurred in 2021, when 162 people in Poland were targeted.

Justice Minister Bodnar told Polish media that 31 people targeted by the spyware had already been called to testify. It would be left to the individuals subjected to surveillance to decide whether or not to disclose their identities, Bodnar said. The 31 witnesses represented only the first group of targeted individuals; more would be notified at a later date.

Pegasus isn’t named in the report; reference is made only to “operative end device surveillance.” A spokesperson for the prosecutor general’s office, however, speaking with Wirtualna Polska, confirmed that Pegasus was used to spy on the targeted individuals.

Surveillance of Political Opponents

Pegasus spyware was developed by NSO Group, an Israeli company that claims to sell it only to government clients. Attackers can use the surveillance tool to take complete control of a smartphone – while the phone’s owner remains unaware of the attack. Once a device has been infiltrated, the attackers can gain access to saved data, track the phone’s location and activate the microphone to listen in on the owner’s surroundings, all without the owner’s knowledge. For years there has been criticism of Pegasus.

Tomasz Siemoniak, minister and coordinator of security services in Poland, told broadcaster TVN24 that among the nearly 600 individuals targeted for surveillance, there were “certainly some justifiable cases.” But the temptation for politicians to deploy Pegasus against “troublesome politicians, lawyers, judges, and prosecutors” was too great – and there had been “too many” such cases.

Magdalena Sroka, head of the parliamentary commission, told the Gazeta newspaper she had expected the findings to be on this scale.

Plans to Investigate Abuse

Justice Minister Bodnar told the Guardian in early April that the complete list of surveillance targets contained “many more well-known people” than had previously been made public. The focus, Bodnar said, would be on investigating cases that seemed to be politically motivated or abusive.

Court authorizations were evidently obtained in individual cases where surveillance was used. In Bodnar’s judgement, however, the courts were not fully informed about the use of Pegasus.

Wojciech Klicki, a lawyer with the Panoptykon Foundation, an NGO, told the Guardian that the judges often wouldn’t even be told the names of the people to be targeted for surveillance. “The system is constructed in a way that encourages judges to make automatic approvals of surveillance requests,” Klicki said.

In February, new prime minister Donald Tusk announced that he had evidence of the illegal use of Pegasus by the previous administration – the list of victims was “very long,” he said.

Security Analysts Find Evidence of Attacks

In 2021 it came to light that opposition politicians in Poland were being spied on: security analysts at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab were able to show that the smartphone belonging to current member of European parliament and former opposition leader Krzysztof Brejza had been infiltrated by Pegasus more than 30 times in the 2019 election year, when he was running the opposition coalition’s electoral campaign. Brejza has come forward as one of the 31 people who have been called to testify.

In late 2019, Citizen Lab’s evidence shows, the lawyer Roman Giertych was also repeatedly spied on using Pegasus. Giertych’s clients have included Tusk, who became prime minister of Poland in December 2023 (having held the post previously from 2007-2014) and before that was head of the Civic Coalition, an alliance of opposition parties.

Prosecutor Ewa Wrzosek was also spied on. She co-founded an independent association of prosecutors who criticized the changes to the Polish judicial system implemented by the former PiS government.

Later reports revealed that member of parliament Jacek Karnowski’s smartphone was hacked when he was mayor of the city of Sopot.

PiS Government Alleged to Have Spied on Lawmakers in Its Own Party

Polish media also reported in February that PiS lawmakers were among those targeted by Pegasus. The list of targets includes former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Jan Krzysztof Ardanowski and former Marshal of the Sejm Marek Kuchciński.

PiS has admitted to purchasing Pegasus, but has repeatedly denied having used the tool to spy on political opponents.

Last fall the Polish senate concluded that the purchase of the surveillance software was illegal. The 2019 elections were accordingly deemed unfair on account of the use of Pegasus against opposition candidates.

Elsewhere in the EU the use of spy software against political opposition members or journalists has also come to light in Hungary, Spain and Greece. (dpa / js)