Latvian MEP Ivars Ijabs: “Unfortunately, spyware has been sold or rented out to some EU countries and some use it”

  • 2023-01-19
  • Lucas Bolt

The topic of the war rarely goes off the lips of a euro-parliamentarian – and Ivars Ijabs, a Latvian MEP representing the New Europe Group in the European Parliament, is not an exception. However, with him being substitute on an intriguingly sounding committee, the European Parliament’s Committee of Inquiry to investigate the use of Pegasus, a spyware, and equivalent surveillance spyware, The Baltic Times Magazine touched the subtle theme too – how to reconcile technological advancement and personal data protection and prevent the abuse?

You’re a substitute on a very interesting committee – Committee of Inquiry to investigate the use of Pegasus, an Israeli spyware (Pegasus is spyware developed by the Israeli cyber-arms company that can be covertly installed on mobile phones and other devices and is capable of reading text messages, tracking calls, collecting passwords, location tracking, accessing the target device's microphone and camera – TBT), and equivalent surveillance spyware. Are you saying that Europeans are being surveilled?

The famous Israeli spyware, Pegasus, has been sold or rented out to some European Union countries – my home country Latvia is not among them. This is, first of all, a human rights issue, of course. We need to keep in lockstep with the technological advancement, but it cannot come at expense of privacy and human rights. The Israeli are very good at making the technologies, but, importantly, they are very autonomous in the decision-making – where the software should be sold or where it should not be sold, in what cases it can be applied and in which not. Interestingly, for a reason unknown to me, Estonian government was trying to buy the software, but the Israelis would not sell it. By the way, it is very expensive. I’ve come across a number that spying a private person’s cell phone can cost around 1 million euros. For an obvious reason, this would be worth doing on Sergei Shoigu’s (the Russian Defence minister – TBT) cell phone, but when some of the EU member state governments, like that in Poland and Hungary, use the software to spy on their political opponents, journalists and NGO activists, it is very outrageous. The Pegasus is not the only spyware being used, so, in general, personal data and its protection remains an issue. Especially with some big digital market names, like Alibaba, Facebook, Google and Amazon, for example, eagerly collecting any data information about their consumers. There are initiatives in the European Parliament to further limit their access to consumers’ personal data. But most are on a theoretical level more – at what point the traces should be deleted and how far artificial intelligence can be allowed to predict consumers’ behavioural patterns and so on. Obviously, a delicate balance is needed, reconciling the technological advancement and personal data protection as much as possible.

The European Parliament has rallied behind Ukraine as a powerful force, yet, as a New Europe MEP, do you see any slight differences in the approach towards it among the various European Parliament fractions?

The main divide is not among the parliamentary groups or fractions – it is very much about the geography. We can see that some Western European countries have rather a different approach on the Russian aggression and the role that Russia is now playing in Europe. We have to admit that there is still this illusion – it had been quite dominant for the last 30 years until the very start of the war – that Russia could be somehow built or integrated into the European security architecture. As a problematic part of it, yet nevertheless a partner.  Only in the Baltics, Poland, Romania and in the couple of other Eastern and Central European countries the perception was much more realistic. Although February 24 (Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022 – TBT) was a rude awakening to all Europe and perhaps the world,  we still see the geographical divide on Russia – as one Bulgarian analyst pointed out, between justice and peace. There is an increasing number of politicians in the West, who, faced with record energy prices, record high inflation and so on, would like to see peace – or at least some kind of peace under conditions totally unacceptable to Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Baltics and the countries again stand out here, viewing the aggression as an attack on the Western civilization. Russia’s bolden revisionist attitude, such an anti-Western sentiment which have been predominant in Russia for centuries, is not new and thence is horrifying, meaning that if the aggressor is not stopped now, it will attack again.

To answer your question, the majority of Russian supporters are on far right and far left. Especially on the latter among the Communists or so-called crypto Communists, like the AfD (Alternative for Germany (AfD is a right-wing populist political party known for its opposition to the European Union, as well as immigration to Germany – TBT) that are promoting the idea of peace at any cost.  The pro-Russian attitude of some Baltic MEPs in the European Parliament is rather marginal and invisible.

You are on the EP’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (R&I). Understandably, energy issues are in everyone’s focus now – again due to the war. Yet speaking on the COVID pandemic which we seemingly overcame, how did it first impact the Committee’s agenda?

Being someone who comes from the academic world (Ivars Ijabs was a lecturer and professor at the University of Latvia and holds a PhD in political science before becoming a MEP – TBT), back in May 2020,some other MEPs and I called for increased investment into research and innovation from the national envelopes of the European structural and recovery funds.  Increased R&I investments from these funds is especially important in the light of cuts to the proposed budget of Horizon Europe programme that were made by the European Council in the spring of the year. Upon my initiative, 11 members from the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy of the European Parliament reemphasised the need for increased European funding for research and industry. The decision of the European Council to allocate to Horizon Europe only €80.9 billion (including €5 billion from Next Generation EU funds) that amounts only to roughly two thirds of the research and innovation funding that was called for by the European Parliament was in a way disappointing.  Just because some EU member states, like Latvia which lags in innovation and cutting-edge science, suffered as a result.

Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, the Committee, likewise the entire European Parliament, was focusing very much on the EU’s green deal, which had become a flagship project for the European Parliament. It would have been on top of the agenda if not for the pandemic and, then, the war. Yet the European green deal is still pretty much there – in fact, as we are speaking (the interview took place on October 23 – TBT), the supplementary legislation to the deal is about to reach my desk in the coming days.  Among other things we will be focusing on carbon border adjustments, also referred to as “carbon border adjustment mechanisms”, CBAM (they aim to prevent carbon-intensive economic activity from moving out of jurisdictions with relatively stringent climate policies and into those with relatively less stringent policies – TBT). I’m also actively involved in the amending of the Energy Taxation Directive, ETD (a European directive, which establishes the framework conditions of the European Union for the taxation of electricity, motor and aviation fuels and most heating fuels – TBT).

But understandably, due to the war, namely energy issues are dominating the EP agenda. The good news is that, ahead of winter, the European gas storages are filled and the EP is discussing how to assist households and businesses faced with record-high energy costs. Getting into energy market is a new thing for the European Union, but it is necessary now. In fact, the European Union is looking beyond expansion of renewables – there is immense potential of tapping hydrogen, which is something we are researching now.

You are a member of EP Delegation for relations with the United States. With the country being our staunchest ally, I wonder if there is anything to be improved?

Due to the COVID pandemic, for the last two years or so, the delegation was not very active – we just could not travel.  Now, we are restarting the contacts – an increasing number of interesting American analysts come over to talk to MEPs on a range of issues, first of all, security issues. Just recently, one of the former chief American military commanders in Europe, met our Delegation and the talk we had was extremely interesting. The whole conversation was how to boost European security amid the turbulent times. Until very recently, the whole understanding of the security concept that many thought was acceptable was rather simple: “Well, if Russia dares to invade a NATO country, it will take a couple of days before the NATO forces push them out.” But now – in fact, after annexation of Crimea in 2014, when Russia used little green men ("little green men" refers to masked soldiers of the Russian Federation in unmarked green army uniforms and carrying modern Russian military weapons and equipment who appeared during the Russo-Ukrainian War in 2014 – TBT), the tripwire (a tripwire force (sometimes called a glass plate) is a strategic approach in deterrence theory. The tripwire force is a military force smaller than that of a potential adversary, which is designed to signal the defending side's commitment to an armed response to future aggression without triggering a security spiral – TBT) does not work anymore – Russia is waging a full-scale war in Ukraine. A war in which Russia, despite a huge loss of its troops, intentionally inflicts enormous damage on the Ukrainian infrastructure and kills many lives. The war also raises some questions on the involvement in European – and Baltic – air security of some of our key European partners. We do have a certain contingent here for that, but if things get really nasty here, who will help us? Germany or the Netherlands that usually are not very eager to help militarily any other country? Who else? Meanwhile, the Americans are happy to support anybody who show capability of defending himself. But it is us who need to solve our own problems and do our homeworks. If such military threats appear right on our Baltic borders, we need to have very exact arrangements with our closest neighbours and, Germany, certainly plays a key part.