WhatsApp attack: who is hacking Catalonian politicians’ phones?

Facebook-owned messenger service confirms attempts to access regional parliament speaker’s device

Roger Torrent
Roger Torrent (centre) at a protest in Madrid against the prosecution of Catalan separatists
(Image credit: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)

WhatsApp has confirmed that a leading pro-independence politician in Catalonia was the target of a phone hacking described by experts as a possible act of “domestic espionage”.

The Facebook-owned messaging service has sent a letter to Roger Torrent, the speaker of the Catalan parliament, confirming that his WhatsApp account was “targeted in an attempt to gain unauthorised access to data and communications on the device”, The Guardian reports.

The phones of at least two other pro-independence supporters are also believed to have been attacked.

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“By ‘targeted’ we are referring to the fact that the attackers attempted to inject malicious code into Mr Torrent’s WhatsApp application,” said Niamh Sweeney, the company’ director of public policy for Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

“Based on the information available to us, we are not in a position to confirm whether Mr Torrent’s device was compromised as this could only be achieved through an exhaustive forensic analysis of the device.”

The letter to the politician said that the attempted hack took place during a targeted attack against a total of around 1,400 WhatsApp users - including other political figures, journalists, diplomats and human rights activists - by operators of spyware made by NSO Group, an Israel-based technology firm.

NSO Group has declined to comment on the claims but is being sued by WhatsApp over its alleged role in the digital assault, which took place over a two-week period from April to May last year, according to The Guardian.

The confirmation of the attack on Torrent’s personal device comes two weeks after the newspaper and Madrid-based daily El Pais first reported that he was believed to have been “targeted using spyware its makers say is only sold to governments to track criminals and terrorists”.

At the time, Torrent said that the Spanish state would be complicit in a crime if the authorities had been aware of the suspected hacking, Reuters reports.

Experts suggested that allegation might prove to be correct. “This case is extremely troubling because it suggests that possible domestic political espionage was taking place,” said John Scott-Railton, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab who has helped investigate the hacking attempts.

Spain’s socialist-led coalition government has denied any knowledge of such spying.

Torrent is now planning to take legal action against Felix Sanz Roldan, who was the head of Spain’s National Intelligence Centre (CNI) at the time of the hacking assault. Roldan has denied any wrongdoing, telling The Guardian that the CNI “always acts with the most scrupulous regard for the law”.

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Joe Evans is the world news editor at TheWeek.co.uk. He joined the team in 2019 and held roles including deputy news editor and acting news editor before moving into his current position in early 2021. He is a regular panellist on The Week Unwrapped podcast, discussing politics and foreign affairs. 

Before joining The Week, he worked as a freelance journalist covering the UK and Ireland for German newspapers and magazines. A series of features on Brexit and the Irish border got him nominated for the Hostwriter Prize in 2019. Prior to settling down in London, he lived and worked in Cambodia, where he ran communications for a non-governmental organisation and worked as a journalist covering Southeast Asia. He has a master’s degree in journalism from City, University of London, and before that studied English Literature at the University of Manchester.