Ronald Deibert is a 57-year-old Canadian founder and director of Citizen Lab who never turns down his role as a university professor of political science. A strip of metaphors to explain the techniques of his organization is attached to the University of Toronto. Citizen Lab, a lab with about 40 employees studying the relationship between new technologies, human rights and global security, released a CatalanGate report on April 18 that lists 65 independence leaders who are allegedly being cyberspyed using Pegasus, a tool that the Israeli company NSO provides to states and official institutions. The report shook the foundations of Spanish policy and prompted the government to announce that President Pedro Sánchez and several of his ministers had also been attacked using the same technology. The following week, the director of the National Intelligence Center (CNI) was fired.
On Thursday, hours after Paz Esteban was replaced by Esperanza Castelleiro as head of the secret services, Deibert spoke to EL PAÍS at a Madrid hotel. He refuses any invitation and goes to a bar to pay for his bottle of soda. Today he flies back to his country after a few days in Spain. “This is not a club or a volunteer group,” he says of Citizen Lab. “We are not a company. Not an NGO. We conduct impartial, evidence-based investigations in the public interest. We do not act in favor of any case in Spain. We have done research in many countries, and this is another one for us. We are independent of all governments. We do not conduct paid research. We finance ourselves with grants.”
Ask. Where do these subsidies come from?
Answer. Basically the foundations. Many of them tend to renew grants because our work seems relevant to them.
P. You are weighed down by the suspicion that CatalanGate is a partisan report.
R. No. Those mentioned in that study did not and do not have any influence on what we wrote, when and how we build it.
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P. Was the CatalanGate report commissioned by the ERC or the Junts or their entourage?
R. Absolutely wrong.
P. What are your relations with those parties, many of whose members appear in the report?
R. The same relationship as a doctor with his patient. We are scientists, we study them to determine their diagnosis and we give it to them orally before we publish anything.
P. Don’t they decide when to publish their research?
R. We never publish anything until you are ready for it.
P. But when they work with parties, the timing of their publication may be politically motivated.
It is absolutely not true that the CatalanGate report was commissioned by the parties and circles of the ERC or Junts Per Catalunya.
R. For us, this is not relevant.
P. It was in this case.
R. When will something like this not be relevant for this country?
P. This time it was a political tsunami.
R. Wasn’t that in December 2017? We didn’t have evidence to publish then. Wasn’t that a year ago? This report is not only about spying on Catalan politicians. This is a story about the extensive and disproportionate use of surveillance technology, allegedly by one or more agencies of the Spanish government. There is a crisis of democracy in the country.
P. Who does he point to as responsible for this espionage?
R. We only have evidence pointing to one or more agencies of the Spanish state. First, the NSO claims to only sell Pegasus to governments. Second, who else would spy on Catalan society in this way? Presidents, vice presidents, parliamentarians… Would another government do this? Very unlikely. And third, the traces of those being spied on have information such as social security numbers that can only come from an agency of the Spanish government.
Spying on Catalan politicians is carried out by one or more agencies of the Spanish state.
P. The CNI has admitted to only spying on 18 of the 65 cases you mentioned.
R. How can we check this? What was taught in the commission on state secrets? Do you believe in that?
P. The director of intelligence services was fired after admitting 18 cases. He could have accepted the rest for the same price he paid.
R. The only thing I can confirm is that the attacks we registered are 100% reliable. [Citizen Lab detectó infecciones en 51 de los 65 investigados, según el informe CatalanGate; el resto también fueron considerados ataques de Pegasus sin llegar a suponer infecciones].
P. Can there be false positives?
R. No. Our methods are very precise, developed over the years.
Ronald Deibert during an interview.Claudio Alvarez
P. In the case of the Prime Minister, the theft of information was confirmed by a forensic examination of his own phone. But you never physically had the mobile phones of those who were allegedly spied on.
R. You don’t need it. We have a spectrum of data from multiple sources. We looked at the infrastructure used by companies such as NSO, which is provided by Pegasus. Everyone leaves a digital background. If I get access to your cell phone and the government is the client, the NSO has a server to send instructions that are transmitted from computer to computer and the traces of which we can access with great care. We have access to some information about the infrastructure of the NSO. Getting a mobile phone might not be all that helpful for us. Companies make mistakes and leave traces.
P. EL PAÍS has posted that at least a dozen Junts politicians are contacting you to see if they were spied on prior to 1-O. How many pro-independence Catalan politicians are you currently following?
R. We don’t talk about our research or who we do it with because of our ethical protocols.
P. You say that you know that the current President of the Generalitat, Father Aragones, was followed through Pegasus – which was confirmed by the dismissed director of the CNI – but you cannot determine the date. How can they know it was being spied on if they don’t know when it happened?
R. We were able to deduce that Pegasus was active on his device from a trail that could only come from said technology, but we didn’t have access to other indicators to confirm the exact moment.
P. Who do you think can be held responsible for spying through Pegasus to members of the government, including the President?
R. We know governments use Pegasus to spy on each other. An unregulated espionage market is a matter of national security. When I saw the news about the espionage of members of the Spanish government, I thought that maybe people will understand that this is not a matter of Catalan politicians, but a much bigger problem. Maybe it’s a foreign country? Yes, maybe this is the internal intelligence service? Also. These revelations, combined with CatalanGate, give rise to an independent investigation into what is happening in this country.
P. Could the Catalan government have been spying on itself through Pegasus?
R. I have no evidence for this. The best way to answer this question is to conduct an independent public inquiry. Governments have a penchant for espionage. This problem needs to be addressed if we believe in democracy and human rights.
P. Elyes Campo, one of the researchers at CatalanGate, is at the same time the victim of alleged espionage. Is there a lack of neutrality?
R. There is no conflict of interest. Being the victim of this type of attack is what happens in our research community. It is also common to kill a messenger.
P. Are you ready to provide the Spanish justice system with all the information about CatalanGate?
R. If there is a formal request for cooperation, we will comply with our ethical protocols and will cooperate as we have done in other cases.
P. Have any Spanish authorities requested information from you?
Ronald Deibert in Madrid.Claudio Alvarez
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