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Pegasus spyware: Catalan parliamentary speaker’s cellphone was targeted with a spy program only available to governments | Catalonia | Spain

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The cellphone used by the speaker in the Catalan regional parliament, Roger Torrent, was targeted with Pegasus, a spy program developed by an Israeli company named NSO, and which can only be purchased by governments and security forces and used to target crime and terrorism.

Torrent’s phone was attacked using Pegasus in 2019, according to a joint investigation by EL PAÍS and The Guardian.

The intrusion into the handset of the pro-Catalan independence politician, who belongs to the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) party, was possible due to a security fault in the WhatsApp messaging service that, between April and May 2019, could be used to install the NSO spy program in at least 1,400 cellphones across the world. The method for the attack was a missed video call, according to WhatsApp.

When you find a Pegasus target, you find the fingerprints of a government

Citizen Lab researcher John Scott-Railton

Pegasus took advantage of this weakness to attack Torrent’s phone, according to Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity group from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, which exclusively investigated the fault in the messaging application in 2019. WhatsApp supplied Citizen Lab with the numbers that had been targeted by the Israeli cyberespionage program, among which was that of Torrent, according to these researchers, who publicly revealed the existence of Pegasus.

EL PAÍS and The Guardian have had access to a certificate emitted by Citizen Lab that validates the fact that the speaker’s phone was attacked with the NSO spyware. “The investigation identified that the number belongs to Mr Roger Torrent,” the analysis states.

The document explains that the attackers resorted to a missed WhatsApp call “that did not require a response” to target the politician’s phone, and it contains “ample evidence that could establish that Torrent was monitored.”

Torrent’s phone figures on a list of a hundred or so cases across the world that were compiled by Citizen Lab of “representatives of civil society” who were indiscriminately attacked via the WhatsApp vulnerability, according to the Canadian institution. Citizen Lab states that 130 activists have been unjustified victims of the NSO program since 2016.

Pegasus permits conversations to be listened to, messages read, access to the phone’s memory, screenshots to be taken, browsing history to be tracked and for remote access of the device’s microphone and camera. This opens the door for the program to listen to the ambient sound in a room if a phone has been infected. The system even allows for encrypted messages and voice calls to be recorded, according to the Canadian experts.

In 2018, Pegasus was being used in 45 countries, targeting activists in Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico

The researchers connected the mysterious disappearance of WhatsApp messages from Torrent’s cellphone in 2019 with an indication that the phone “could have been manipulated by a third party and infected.” And while they cannot identify who ordered the attack, they point out that the Israeli firm that created Pegasus “exclusively sells its products to governments.” This fact is confirmed by NSO on its website, where it presents its services as solutions for the armed forces and the police to combat crime.

While Torrent’s cellphone was targeted by Pegasus, in 2019, the parliamentary speaker took part in dozens of political meetings and also appeared as a witness in Spain’s Supreme Court during the trial of the politicians and civil leaders who were involved in the 2017 independence drive in the Catalonia region, which saw an illegal referendum on secession from Spain held in October of that year. Among the sentences handed down by the court, Carme Forcadell, Torrent’s predecessor as speaker in the regional parliament, was given 11-and-a-half years in jail for the offense of sedition.

In May 2019, when he was being targeted with Pegasus, Torrent took part in a meeting in Strasbourg with the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatvic.

“I noticed strange things,” Torrent explains. “WhatsApp messages and chat histories would be deleted. It didn’t happen to the people around me.” The politician also says that he received “strange” SMS messages in 2019. Torrent says that he sees the hand of the “Spanish state” behind the Pegasus attack.

“The government has no evidence that the speaker of the Catalan parliament, Roger Torrent […] [has] been the targets of hacking via their mobiles,” says a spokesperson from the Spanish government, who points out that any monitoring of communications requires a court order.

A spokesperson from the CNI, Spain’s intelligence services, says that the organization acts “in full accordance with the legal system, and with absolute respect for the applicable laws.” The same spokesperson adds that the actions of the secret service are supervised by a magistrate from the Supreme Court.

EL PAÍS and The Guardian have unsuccessfully tried to obtain the versions of the Civil Guard, the National Police and the Interior Ministry as to what happened.

Citizen Lab recognizes the difficulty of proving the reach of the cyber attack on Torrent’s cellphone, given that, as it indicates, the NSO programs “have an erasing system on the devices.” “When you find a Pegasus target, you find the fingerprints of a government,” says the researcher from this group, John Scott-Railton.

We can confirm that Torrent’s telephone was targeted. However, additional investigation would be necessary to confirm that the phone was hacked

Citizen Lab researcher John Scott-Railton

According to the expert, “we can confirm that [Torrent’s] telephone was targeted. However, additional investigation would be necessary to confirm that the phone was hacked. At this time we have no reason to believe that it wasn’t.”

After being informed about the issue by this newspaper, Torrent’s team got in touch last Thursday with Scott-Railton. “They gave us the cellphone of the parliamentary speaker without us having asked for it and they said that it was among those attacked by Pegasus,” a spokesperson for the politician explains. “Was the infection successful? [Citizen Lab researcher John] Scott-Railton believes so because Torrent’s WhatsApp messages in 2019 were erased, which is one of the effects of Pegasus.”

Controlled by the London-based fund Novalpina Capital, NSO says that it has a policy for the investigation of the improper use of its systems.

NSO has refused to clarify if Spain is among its clients. “Due to confidentiality agreements, we cannot confirm which authorities use our technology,” the company replied via email. The firm has said that it will begin an investigation “if it is proved” that its products were used improperly in Spain.

The Israeli company has distanced itself in the United States’ courts from the improper use of its spy program. The firm attributes this responsibility to its clients, the governments who acquire its products. “If anyone installed Pegasus on any alleged ‘target devices’ it was not [the] defendants [NSO Group]. It would have been an agency of a sovereign government,” the company stated as a defense in a lawsuit that it is involved in with WhatsApp. The messaging application reported NSO in October of last year for using its platform to infect the cellphones of activists and diplomats around the world with Pegasus.

There is no evidence that Spain’s security forces are clients of NSO. The National Police and the CNI did hire their main competitor, Hacking Team from Italy, until at least 2015. This emerged after 400 gigabytes of internal emails from this company were stolen from its servers after they themselves were hacked.

In 2018, Pegasus was being used in 45 countries, according to Citizen Lab, targeting activists in Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico.

The cellphones of 25 Mexican politicians, activists and reporters, including the journalists Carmen de Arístegui (Arístegui Noticias), Andrés Villareal and Ismael Bojórquez (Río Doce) and Carlos Loret de Mola (Televisa) were targeted in 2019. As were three members of the organization Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, while the leaders of the National Action Party (PAN) Ricardo Anaya and Fernando Rodríguez Noval were also monitored. Omar Radi, a 33-year-old Moroccan journalist, also saw his phone infected by Pegasus after he criticized a judge.

English version by Simon Hunter.



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Texas Deputy AG Apologizes for Slamming Simone Biles as ‘National Embarrassment’

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US gymnast Simone Biles received immense support from Americans this week after announcing she would not be competing in the Team USA final, nor the women’s individual all-around gymnastics final, due to personal mental health concerns. At the same time, the 24-year-old has received backlash from many individuals who viewed her pull-out as weak.

Aaron Reitz, deputy attorney general for Texas, took to Twitter on Wednesday evening to issue an apology to Biles, and recant a statement in which he panned the record-setting US gymnast as a “national embarrassment.” 

“In a moment of frustration and disappointment, I opined on subjects for which I am not adequately versed. That was an error. I can’t imagine what Simone Biles has gone through,” Reitz claimed. “Simone Biles is a true patriot and one of the greatest gymnasts of our time.”

“I apologize to her, and wish her well,” the deputy AG concluded, emphasizing that his “personal social media comments” do not represent the views of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, nor the Office of the Attorney General. 

Reitz’s since-deleted tweet against Biles, who was born in Texas and still resides in the Lone Star State, quoted another post that applauded the 1996 Olympic performance of Team USA gymnast Kerri Strug. Strug, one of the US’ “Magnificent Seven,” severely injured her ankle during the first half of the vault competition, but refused to bow out of the event and ultimately led her team to win the US’ first gold medal in women’s gymnastics. 

“Contrast this with our selfish, childish national embarrassment, Simone Biles,” Reitz said in his quote tweet. 

The deputy AG’s attempt at using Strug’s story to chastise Biles fell flat, as the two-time Olympian threw her support behind the 24-year-old on Tuesday. 

Furthermore, it is worth noting that Biles is no stranger to performing with adversity. When the US Women’s Gymnastics team took home gold at the 2018 World Championships in Qatar, Biles dominated in nearly every competition, despite intense stomach pains from what was later confirmed to be a kidney stone. 

Despite her pull-outs this year, Biles has continued to root for her fellow Team USA gymnasts. She also expressed in a Wednesday social media post that “the outpouring [of] love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”



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Aid cuts make a mockery of UK pledges on girls’ education | Zoe Williams

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With all the fanfare Covid would allow, the global education summit opened in London this week. Ahead of the meeting, the minister for European neighbourhood and the Americas was on rousing form. “Educating girls is a gamechanger,” Wendy Morton said, going on to describe what a plan would look like to do just that.

The UK, co-hosting the summit with Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, plans to raise funds for the Global Partnership for Education, from governments and donors. The UK government has promised £430m over the next five years.

There followed a number of reasons why the issue is so important, all of them absolutely sound: on any given indicator, from GDP to infant health and beyond, a nation stands or falls by how well, for how long, and how inclusively it educates its girls.

The issue has never been more important than during this pandemic, which in many countries is hitting a peak having already affected girls disproportionately.

These are all the right words, even in the right order, yet they land completely at odds with the government’s behaviour.

Lis Wallace, head of advocacy at the One campaign, is most immediately concerned with these pledges being fully funded. There are two core targets: one is to increase girls’ access to education, the other is to boost the key milestone for all children – that they’re able to read and understand a simple story by the age of 10.

The past 18 months have been devastating for education, particularly in countries where it’s harder to access to online learning. About 1.6 billion children are out of school across the world. There’s a target to raise $5bn (£3.6bn), “which is a drop in the ocean of what is required to meet the global learning crisis”, Wallace says. It looks as though this summit will raise no more than $4bn, which is nothing less than a “failure of statecraft”, as Wallace explains: “It’s challenging when the host government is stepping back and making aid cuts for it then to ask other countries to step up.”

This is a depressing echo of the G7’s failure earlier this year; commitments to share vaccine doses with low-income countries came too little, too late, with devastating results, and it’s hard to avoid the question of whether that outcome would have been different if the host nation had role modelled some generosity.

Furthermore, there’s some confused causality in the minister’s assertion that staying in school protects girls from “forced child marriage, gender-based violence and early pregnancy”. The exact inverse is true: it is largely teenage pregnancy that forces girls out of school in the first place, and to try to use education in lieu of sexual health and reproductive provision is illogical.

Esi Asare Prah, who is a youth and advocacy officer in Ghana for MSI Reproductive Choices, describes a situation in which 5,000 to 7,000 girls drop out of school each year after becoming pregnant – last year, 2,000 of them were between 10 and 14. Across sub-Saharan Africa, MSI estimates that up to 4 million girls drop out or are excluded from school every year due to pregnancy.

“These girls are most likely to be on the street, doing menial jobs; their children will not make it into higher education. It creates a cycle of poverty and a cycle of slums. For me, the foundation of it is that you can’t seek to invest in education for girls in sub-Saharan Africa and cut down funding for sexual and reproductive health. If you treat development issues as isolated, you will have the same issues of 50 years ago chasing you into the future.”

Here, the recent cuts to the aid budget make a mockery of these pledges on education: UK funding to the UN Population Fund recently went down by 85%.

There is inspiration to take from this summit, nevertheless; President Kenyatta has been leading the charge not only on education but also on the climate crisis, and there is a solidarity and sense of purpose between poorer nations that may yet inspire greater generosity from donors. Whatever it achieves, though, it will be despite its UK host not because of them.

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[Ticker] US backs WHO plan for further Covid-origin investigation

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US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.

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