French president Emmanuel Macron and Moroccan King Mohamed VI are among world leaders whose phones may have been selected as potential targets for Israeli-made spyware, a new investigation has revealed.
One thousand high-profile individuals may have been targeted with the military-grade software on behalf of other countries, according to ‘Pegasus Project’, an investigation led by Amnesty International, Paris-based nonprofit Forbidden Stories and a dozen media organisations.
The phone numbers of three presidents, 10 prime ministers and a king were among 50,000 on a leaked list obtained by the investigation.
Forensic analysis of a sample of 67 phones from the leaked data found 37 contained traces of infection or attempted infection by Pegasus spyware made by Israeli company, NSO.
In addition to Macron, the list includes phone numbers linked to the president of the European Council Charles Michel, Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa and Egyptian prime minister Mostafa Madbouly.
Also on the list are Morocco’s prime minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani, Iraqi president Barham Salih , Uganda’s Ruhakana Rugunda and Lebanon’s Saad Hariri.
The Washington Post and the Guardian said none of the named leaders offered up their devices for forensic testing, so investigators were unable to confirm if any were infected by the Pegasus spyware.
The Washington Post said it was not possible to determine if any NSO client attempted to deliver Pegasus to the phones of these heads of state “much less whether any succeeded.”
NSO has vehemently denied the accusations, calling the report “false” and “flimsy from the beginning”.
It said Pegasus had never been licensed to 50,000 numbers, and told the Guardian that Macron was not a “target” of any of its customers.
“There is no link between the 50,000 numbers to NSO Group or Pegasus,” an NSO spokesperson said.
Forbidden Stories described use of the spyware as a “new global weapon to silence journalists” and claimed that “at least 180 journalists around the world have been selected as targets by clients of the cyber-surveillance company NSO Group.”
These include reporters, editors and executives at the Financial Times, CNN, the New York Times, France 24, The Economist, the Associated Press and Reuters, it said.
Among the list were also two women who were close to the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the investigations revealed.
Israel’s defence ministry, which has to issue export licences for each sale NSO makes, is under mounting pressure to halt the licences and to distance itself from the group, which has previously been described by opponents as “the long arm” of the government and defence ministry.
Danna Ingleton, Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech, told The Independent: “There is overwhelming evidence that NSO spyware is being systematically used for repression and other human rights violations”
“NSO Group must immediately stop selling its equipment to governments with a track record of abusing human rights. Israel’s Ministry of Defence must also revoke the security export license of spyware company,” she said.