Spyware Used On Opposition Politicians Affected Election, Polish Senate Finds

A special committee of the Polish senate has, on the 6th of September 2023, issued a verdict proclaiming that the use of the Pegasus spyware software during the 2019 election has been unlawful and has affected the result of the election via unfair targeting of the members of the country’s opposition. This follows a lengthy investigation conducted since last year by the Council of Europe, which has in June this year released a report breaking down the mechanics of Pegasus and its impact on human rights while also giving a recommendation for the Polish government to investigate, prosecute and ban the usage of the spyware. Following the Senate Committee’s verdict, the further handling of the issue is to be handed over to the country’s prosecutors, who will decide what, if any, crime was committed and how to prosecute it.

The commission’s findings provoked much uproar among Polish politicians and public. Magdalena Kochan, a member of the Senate, commented upon the issuing of the report: “What has me the most shaken is that the state, which called itself a welfare state (…) is in reality an oppressive state. How is a Polish citizen who went against the ruling party and who knows the government can use spyware supposed to feel? They are not only powerless, but also unaware that such means are being used upon them. Weapons meant for terrorists cannot be used against regular citizens.” The Vice Marshall of the Senate, Michał Kamiński, went even further. “The Watergate affair which led to the downfall of President Nixon is a small matter when compared to the Pegasus affair. What we were able to learn in the last year and a half of our commission’s work must terrify us, as citizens.” he said.

With how the Polish government has over the years drifted away from democracy, terror is really not an inappropriate reaction. But it must be accompanied by action. The prosecution, to which the job of further dealing with the issue, is at the moment under the command of Zbigniew Ziobro, Minister of Justice and Chief Prosecutor in one. Mr Ziobro is a member of the ruling right-wing populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) and has, along with his fellow party-members, been vocal in his contempt for the members of the opposition targeted by Pegasus. The prosecution, as well as the judges a significant number of whom have been with dubious legality appointed by PiS aligned officials, face a conflict of interest and, if left without supervision, cannot be trusted to carry out their duties in prosecuting the abuse of human rights that was the usage of Pegasus. It is thus absolutely crucial that the public, as well as other watchdogs, provide that supervision.

The Central Anticorruption Bureau (CBA) has purchased the Pegasus software in 2017 from the Israeli NSO Group, which is currently being sued by both WhatsApp and Apple for allegedly hacking into the users’ account and violating their privacy, via Matic, a middleman agency which has earned more than 8 million PLN (roughly 1.7 million EUR) from the transaction, in order to hide the purchase from the public. It is a powerful invigilation tool, allowing spying on the target’s phone activity, tracking on them, eavesdropping as well as accessing private files. According to the findings of the commission, it has been illegally used on opposition aligned individuals during the 2019 election and has influenced the election result to the point of rendering them dubious. It will be to Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal (currently illegally led by the PiS aligned judge Julia Przyłębska) to decide whether by using Pegasus PiS has violated the constitution.

For anyone following Polish politics, PiS abusing human rights is not a surprise. This government has a lengthy record of similar actions and, as they are likely to stay in power following the upcoming fall elections, the Pegasus scandal will not be their last. What is noteworthy, however, is that a governmental body, in the form of the Senate Commission, has begun a process of punishing the offenders. In the coming months and years, both the government and the country itself will stand trial. If the prosecution succeeds in making its case and the guilty are brought to justice, it will be a rare moment of a currently broken system glimmering with hope for repair.