NSO Group
NSO Group REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

The Spanish government on Tuesday categorically denied illegally spying on Catalan separatists, after a rights group accused Madrid of having targeted their mobile phones with Pegasus spyware, developed by Israeli company NSO Group.

The Citizen Lab research center at the University of Toronto had said that at least 65 Catalan separatists were targeted, including the region's current leader, by the Pegasus spyware.

The group said almost all of the spying took place between 2017 and 2020 in the wake of the independence bid by Catalonia that plunged Spain into its worst political crisis in years.

"The government has nothing to hide," spokeswoman Isabel Rodríguez told a news conference on Tuesday, when asked about the accusations following a weekly cabinet meeting.

Spain is "a democratic country and a state of law where we do not spy, we do not intercept conversations, we do not wiretap, except within the framework of the law," she added.

The Spanish government will cooperate "as much as possible" with any investigation into the allegations, she added.

Pegasus, which can switch on a phone's camera or microphone and harvest its data, was at the center of a storm last year after a list of about 50,000 potential surveillance targets worldwide was leaked to the media.

The report is the latest in a series of reports linking Pegasus to abuses by governments.

In February, the Finnish foreign ministry said it had detected Pegasus in several phones used by its diplomats abroad.

The Finnish announcement followed a report in The New York Times which said that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked to ensure that Saudi Arabia would be able to use the Pegasus software, around the time that the Abraham Accords were signed with the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Earlier this month, digital-rights researchers said that the mobile phones of four Jordanian human rights activists were hacked over a two-year period with Pegasus. Jordan denied the allegations.

The US Commerce Department recently blacklisted NSO Group, prohibiting it from using American technology in its operations.

Apple sued the Israeli firm in late November, seeking a permanent injunction to ban NSO Group from using Apple software, services, or devices.