The Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), the German federal police, secretly bought the spyware Pegasus, for the surveillance of suspects, reveals Tuesday, September 7 the daily Zeit. Despite the legal questions posed by the use of this software in Germany, the BKA has entered into a contract with the Israeli company NSO Group, which markets Pegasus, according to several sources within the country’s security services. A parliamentary hearing on this subject is due to take place on Tuesday.
NSO sells Pegasus only to law enforcement and intelligence services. Once installed on an iPhone or Android, the program allows you to monitor the phone in real time, listen to conversations, know the geolocation of the device, and even activate the camera or record the courier archives. In July, an international media consortium, including in particular the German media Zeit and Süddeutsche Zeitung, as well as The world, revealed multiple large-scale illegal uses of the software. A list of 50,000 potential software targets, consulted by these media, had shown that large numbers of lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists had been spied on by Pegasus. A dozen heads of state and government were also on the list, including Emmanuel Macron, as well as ministers and diplomats, in France as in other countries.
In 2017, the BKA attended a demonstration of the capabilities of NSO spyware in Wiesbaden (Hesse, western Germany), for which a delegation from NSO Group had specially come from Israel. The legal services of the BKA and the German Ministry of the Interior, however, expressed concern about the extremely wide capabilities offered by spyware. Pegasus allows in practice to take full control of a phone; yet a case law of the Federal Constitutional Court on “digital searches” has ruled that the investigation services can infiltrate the computers and phones of suspects only in very specific cases and record only limited elements.
German investigators have long faced technical difficulties in using previous software used by the BKA. According to (Greens) MP Konstantin von Notz, this software was not used in any preliminary investigation between 2017 and 2020.
This meager record would have convinced the BKA to stop designing internal monitoring tools, and to fall back on NSO’s offer. Commercial discussions took place with the company at the end of 2019; according to information from Zeit, police officers have access to only a part of the possibilities offered by Pegasus, those which have been deemed compatible with German law. How this legal compliance is ensured and monitored remains unclear, as does whether Pegasus is still in use by the BKA today.
Neither the federal police service nor the German interior ministry wanted to answer questions from the German press on this subject, citing risks to the security of police operations. NSO also did not respond to media requests. During the past year, the federal government had been asked three times, by members of Parliament and the media, whether Germany was a client of NSO; the Ministry of the Interior had each time said that it could not provide an answer to this question.
In France, the police have, for ten years, the right to use spyware in a number of investigations. However, nothing seems to reveal that the French investigation services are customers of NSO.
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