Justice minister downplays spyware hacking allegations

Wojciech Olkuśnik/PAP

The Polish justice minister has dismissed allegations that Israeli-made Pegasus spyware was used to hack the phones of opposition figures, calling them a “storm in a tea cup.”

In late December, the US news agency Associated Press reported that a specialist IT department at the University of Toronto had confirmed that Pegasus spyware had been used to hack the mobile phones of some opposition figures, including a senator who at the time of the attack was head of an election campaign for the Civic Coalition, the main opposition grouping.

Two other figures mentioned in the Associated Press story were a prominent lawyer and government critic, and a prosecutor who launched an investigation into a botched 2020 postal presidential election that cost taxpayers millions of zlotys.

The analysts were unable to pinpoint who was behind the hack, but said that the NSO Group, the maker of the spyware, only sells its software to government agencies.

Responding to the reports, Zbigniew Ziobro, the justice minister, told a press conference on Wednesday that every democratic state has the right and duty to have systems that ensure that people who may commit crimes can be investigated.

According to Ziobro, "it would be a disgrace to the Polish state, if it did not have programmes that would allow, in accordance with the provisions of the law, the use of technological tools that make it possible to obtain legal wiretapping."

"It is good that the Polish state is not helpless, it is good that criminals cannot jump for joy. (...) I do not understand this storm in a tea cup at all, what is going on here?" he said.

Asked why the prosecutor's office was not investigating the Pegasus surveillance case, Ziobro said that: "In Poland, the services operate in accordance with law and act in regard to everyone, regardless of their function, profession... if the findings of the competent law enforcement authorities indicate that they may be committing a crime - a measure may be applied to such a person in the form of telephone wiretapping or other operational controls, as specified by the law."

Minister Michał Wójcik, a member of the Council of Ministers, who was present at the press conference, said that "nothing was hidden" from MPs when the spyware was bought.

"If you go back to the public finance committee's transcripts from four years ago... it was discussed... the financing was transparent, clear to everyone," he said.

He added that the entire procedure was legal because crime prevention is one of the aims of the Justice Fund.

On Monday, a leading Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza wrote the government covertly purchased Pegasus for PLN 25 million (about EUR 5.5 million) for the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) using funds from the Victims and Post-release Assistance Fund, known as the Justice Fund, subordinate to the Ministry of Justice.

The daily added that the entire operation had been camouflaged at an each stage. It claimed that during a parliamentary debate on changes to the financial plan of the Justice Fund, MPs from the lower house’s (Sejm's) public finances committee were completely unaware of the fact that the point of the changes was to finance the CBA's purchases.