Nearly two months after the global scandal over the alleged use of the Israeli Pegasus spyware to target journalists, lawyers and human rights activists, concerns have apparently been raised by legal officials in Germany's Interior Ministry over its use by the country's federal investigative police.
A report in the German newspaper Die Zeit revealed details of a deal between the Federal Criminal Police Office — the Bundeskriminalamt, or BKA — and representatives of the Israeli firm that developed the spyware, the controversial NSO Group.
The meeting was held in 2017, a year before the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The brutal killing of the 59 year old in 2018 left behind a trail of evidence including details of how Riyadh used the Israeli spyware to target people close to him.
Details of the deal revealed by the German newspaper claims that the BKA expressed concerns over the use of the Israeli spyware, which allows its operators to take full control of any smartphones infected with Pegasus. Nevertheless, the report also notes that the decision to purchase the spyware was made after the BKA failed to develop its own.
Legal officials within Germany's Interior Ministry are said to have been concerned that the spyware does not meet the legal requirements. Germany only permits online snooping in very specific and extreme cases.
Sources told Die Zeit that officials were adamant that any use of the spyware should be done only in cases as authorised by German law. It is unclear, however, what oversight was done on the actual usage and in what context the programme was used, if at all.
As many as 50,000 phone numbers were said to have been selected for surveillance using the Israeli snooping technology, according to details of an investigation by the Pegasus Project. This was a ground-breaking collaboration by more than 80 journalists from 17 media organisations in ten countries.
Dismissing the Israeli firm's claim that the hacking has been exaggerated, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, Agnès Callamard, who led the UN investigation into Khashoggi's killing, said: "These revelations blow apart any claims by NSO that such attacks are rare and down to rogue use of their technology. While the company claims its spyware is only used for legitimate criminal and terror investigations, it's clear its technology facilitates systemic abuse. They paint a picture of legitimacy while profiting from widespread human rights violations."