Polish Leader Admits Country Uses NSO Group Spyware, Denies Targeting Government Critics

The leader of Poland's ruling Law and Justice party admitted that the nation purchased spyware from Israeli company NSO Group, but he refuted that his political opponents were targeted with the software.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski's comments came after the Associated Press and the University of Toronto's cyber watchdog group, Citizen Lab, reported that three Polish government critics were hacked by NSO's Pegasus spyware.

Other Polish leaders and allies of Kaczynski have previously denied that Poland has owned and used Pegasus. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki dismissed the findings by AP and the Citizen Lab as "fake news" and said that a foreign intelligence agency may have done the hacking, but critics have rejected the claim by saying that no other government would want to spy on the three targets.

Deputy Defense Minister Wojciech Skurkiewicz also said in late December that "the Pegasus system is not in the possession of the Polish services. It is not used to track or surveil anyone in our country."

Kaczynski, the most powerful politician in Poland, made the revelations in an interview set to be published in the Monday edition of the weekly magazine Sieci. Excerpts of the interview were published by the wPolityce.pl news portal on Friday.

He defended the government's use of the NSO spyware in the interview, saying that it "would be bad if the Polish services did not have this type of tool." He also fought the government critic hacking reports and dismissed it as nothing but "the hysteria of the opposition."

Polish Leader Admits Spyware Use
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, admitted that the nation purchased spyware from Israeli company NSO Group, but refuted that his political opponents were targeted with the software. Above, Kaczynski speaks at an election rally on October 11, 2019, in Chelm, Poland. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Kaczynski said the use of such spyware arose in response to the growing use of encryption to mask data in transit, which defeated earlier monitoring technologies. By hacking phones, it lets authorities monitor communications, as well as real-time conversations where they are not encrypted.

On Thursday, Amnesty International independently verified Citizen Lab's finding that Senator Krzysztof Brejza was hacked multiple times in 2019 when he was running the opposition's parliamentary election campaign.

Text messages stolen from Brejza's phone were doctored and aired by state-controlled TV in Poland as part of a smear campaign in the heat of the race, which the populist ruling party went on to narrowly win.

Brejza now maintains that the election was unfair since the ruling party would have had access to his campaign's tactical thinking and plans.

The hacking revelations have rocked Poland, drawing comparisons to the 1970s Watergate scandal in the United States and eliciting calls for an investigative commission in parliament.

Kaczynski said he saw no reason to set up such a commission, and he denied that the surveillance played any role in the outcome of the 2019 election.

"There is no Pegasus case, no surveillance," Kaczynski said. "No Pegasus, no services, no secretly obtained information played any role in the 2019 election campaign. They lost because they lost. They shouldn't look for such excuses today."

The other two Polish targets confirmed by Citizen Lab were Roman Giertych, a lawyer who represents opposition politicians in a number of politically sensitive cases, and Ewa Wrzosek, an independent-minded prosecutor.

Polish media reports say Poland purchased Pegasus in 2017, using money from the so-called Justice Fund, which is meant to help the victims of crimes and to rehabilitate criminals. According to investigations by broadcaster TVN and daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, the software is used by the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau, a special service created to combat corruption in public life that is under the political control of the ruling party.

"The public money was spent on an important public purpose, related to the fight against crime and the protection of citizens," Kaczynski said.

Dozens of high-profile cases of Pegasus abuse have been uncovered since 2015, many by a global media consortium last year, showing the NSO Group malware was employed to eavesdrop on journalists, politicians, diplomats, lawyers and human rights activists from the Middle East to Mexico.

The Polish hacks are considered particularly egregious because they occurred not in a repressive autocracy but in a European Union member state.

Amnesty International's Poland director, Anna Błaszczak, alleged in a statement Friday that spying on the opposition would be consistent with the Polish government's behavior under Law and Justice. The EU has increasingly criticized Poland for judicial interference and other actions regarded as anti-democratic.

"These findings are shocking but not surprising. They raise serious concerns not only for politicians, but for the whole Poland's civil society in general, particularly given the context of the government's record of persistently subverting human rights and the rule of law," Blaszczak said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

NSO Group
Some Polish leaders have previously denied that Poland has owned and used NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, but the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party admitted in an interview the nation has purchased it. Above, the logo of Israeli cyber company NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert on November 11, 2021, in Sapir, Israel. Amir Levy/Getty Images