Interview by Nicoletta Kouroushi
Dutch MEP and rapporteur of the PEGA committee, Sophie in ’t Veld, visited Cyprus in November to investigate the illegal use of Pegasus and other spyware by governments and private actors, after revelations of widespread surveillance against politicians, journalists and activists rocked the EU.
After her visit, she described Cyprus as an “attractive place” for selling surveillance technologies.
In an interview with Phileleftheros, the MEP sounds an alarm bell, saying that journalists, politicians, civil society activists, lawyers and other personalities in public life, are at risk of becoming victims of surveillance.
She adds that national security is used as justification for surveillance and stresses that “democracy is in grave danger if those in power no longer feel any obligation of accountability towards the citizens.”
– During your visit to Cyprus you said that “spyware companies have created a terrifying web of connections that can reach up to public authorities.” Could you specify what exactly you mean? Were you referring to specific political persons?
– The spyware industry is a very shady business, largely unregulated or escaping regulation. As the “Findings” document shows, there is ample evidence for abuse by EU member state governments, but also for a flourishing trade in spyware from the EU to third countries, many of them non-democratic or even murderous regimes. There is also evidence that spyware is being sold to non-state actors outside the EU. Most of this trade is violating the EU export rules, as laid down in the Dual Use Regulation, and certainly EU values. It is quite shocking and bitter that the EU claims to be the beacon of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, but does exactly nothing to stop the exports of spyware, though fully aware it is being used to violate human rights.
– What is your comment on the refusal of the Attorney General’s office in Cyprus to hand over the findings on the spy van criminal case to the PEGA Commission?
That is deeply disappointing. What is needed now is more transparency, not more secrecy. As long as there is no openness, suspicions and distrust will remain. It is difficult to see why the report should not be made public. It is alarming how many EU governments seem to think that transparency and accountability are optional, whereas, in reality, they are the very core of democracy. Invoking national security as a ground for secrecy has become a Harry Potter-like “invisibility cloak” for governments. Democracy is in grave danger if those in power no longer feel any obligation of accountability towards the citizens.
– Should Cypriot citizens and journalists have serious reasons to fear breaches of their personal data?
– I believe journalists, politicians, civil society activists, lawyers and other personalities in public life, are all running a risk. That means that not only their individual rights are being violated, but democracy is in grave danger. If public participation is no longer possible freely and safely, democracy is dead.
– Υοu mentioned that there are strong indications of a Greek “Watergate” scandal. Should the Greek government be concerned?
– Since our visit to Greece, the situation has further evolved, and there has been a series of shocking revelations. Meanwhile, there is also a connection with the alleged use of spyware by the Moroccan authorities and with the “Qatargate” scandal involving Greek socialist MEP Eva Kaili (who is currently in pre-trial detention in Belgium) and two more MEPs who are also members of PEGA. There should be an in-depth investigation into the Greek case, involving Europol, and appropriate political as well as judicial consequences.
– How is PEGA connected with Qatargate?
– Of course, we do not know yet exactly what the facts are. However, the media have reported quite extensively about the connections between several suspects in the Qatargate case and PEGA. Three (full or substitute) members of PEGA are also mentioned – though in different ways – in the Qatargate investigations: Kaili, Cozzolino and Arena. Some of the key suspects in Qatargate, including Panzeri and Giorgi, were collaborating closely with persons within Moroccan government circles.
It is rumoured that Morocco was worried about its reputation after the Pegasus Project revelations of spyware having been used by the Moroccan authorities against leading EU politicians. I cannot judge if the rumour that Morocco would have paid bribes to get information from PEGA or to influence its deliberations are true. Firstly PEGA does its work largely in public, so bribes would seem rather unnecessary.
Secondly, I have not been aware of any attempts to influence PEGA or me as a rapporteur. Besides, the work on the report was only about to start, so there had not yet been any opportunity to influence the outcome. But of course, things may have happened behind the scenes, invisible to the rest of us. We simply don’t know at this stage. The investigation will hopefully shed light on that.
– Do you think that more strict rules around lobbying procedures in the EU are needed?
Qatargate is a very shocking story and immensely damaging to trust in politics. It has shaken Parliament to the core. A thorough evaluation of what happened will be conducted and lobby rules will be tightened where necessary. However, we must remember that Qatargate was not a case of violating the lobby rules but of very serious criminal acts. Even tighter lobby rules will not deter criminals. We have to make sure Parliament is fully transparent and resilient against improper lobbying and other forms of inappropriate influencing, but Parliament also has to remain open and accessible to citizens.
– You have been criticised for the way you handled the case of the PEGA Commission’s report. What is your response?
– The criticism of the procedure was mainly from those who are annoyed at the substance but they know it is difficult to criticise the content. I have followed all regular procedures strictly, even more, than what is usual. Given that Eva Kaili was the S&D spokesperson in PEGA, I believe everyone now understands my decision was the right one. PEGA is very politicised, with many MEPs trying to either shield or attack their national governments, and some of them are even directly implicated, but they have not recused themselves. I believe it is essential to have the truth on the table. It is not a matter for political horse trading.