Presidents, Prime Ministers, and a King Among Potential NSO Spying Targets, Including French Leader Macron

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Photo: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP (Getty Images)

The NSO Group’s spyware may have been used to surveil high-level politicians throughout the world, including more than a dozen heads of state, recent reports show.

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For years, the Israeli surveillance firm has been accused of selling its spyware to corrupt governments, thus allowing them to spy on political dissidents, human rights lawyers, and journalists. These allegations have gained global attention in recent days, however, with the launch of “The Pegasus Project,” an investigation by an international consortium of journalists and researchers into the global proliferation of the firm’s commercial malware.

Key to the investigation has been an anonymously sourced list of some 50,000 phone records, which reporters and researchers say may represent targets or potential targets of surveillance via the company’s trademark spyware product Pegasus.

Now, Amnesty International has reported that the large cache includes the phone numbers of more than a dozen nation-state leaders—including multiple prime ministers, several presidents, and the king of Morocco.

“New evidence uncovered by the Pegasus Project has revealed that the phone numbers for 14 heads of state, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Pakistan’s Imran Khan and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, as well as hundreds of government officials, were selected as people of interest by clients of spyware company NSO Group,” the organization said Tuesday.

The Washington Post reports that none of the phones belonging to the world leaders have been forensically examined for traces of Pegasus but that “tests of other phones on the list found evidence of an attempted or successful spyware intrusion.”

“We have long known that activists and journalists are targets of this surreptitious phone-hacking—but it’s clear that even those at the highest levels of power cannot escape the sinister spread of NSO’s spyware,” said Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard in the organization’s story put out Tuesday.

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The claims, which represent a significant escalation in the apparent scandal, have naturally inspired outrage and alarm throughout the world.

On Tuesday, France announced that it would begin conducting an investigation into the spying claims. Élysée Palace proclaimed: “All light will be shed on these press revelations. Certain French victims have already announced that they would take legal action, and therefore judicial inquiries will be launched.”

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Meanwhile, in India, members of the government’s opposition party disrupted parliament, demanding an investigation into whether the Modi administration had used Pegasus to spy on journalists, attorneys and politicians, The Guardian reported.

In Israel, a so-called “damage control team” has been formed to address the fallout from the press maelstrom, Axios reports. One senior Israeli official told the outlet that the allegations represent “a very substantial crisis,” and that the government may have to “check whether the reports about NSO warrant a change in our policy regarding the export of offensive cyber technology to other countries.”

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NSO, meanwhile, has continued to deny the charges, dismissing the allegations as “outrageous and far from reality.” Following an initial rebuttal on Sunday, the company put out another statement Tuesday through the U.S. lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs group in which it sought to discredit the data cache used in recent investigations: “The list is not a list of Pegasus targets or potential targets. The numbers in the list are not related to NSO Group in any way. Any claim that a name in the list is necessarily related to a Pegasus target or potential target is erroneous and false.”

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