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France opens probe into Pegasus spyware

July 20, 2021

The move follows a complaint made by a news site, which said two reporters had been spied on with Pegasus. French President Emmanuel Macron's cellphone may have also been targeted.

French President Emmanuel Macron is seen on a TV screen
French President Emmanuel Macron is one of 14 world leaders thought to have been targeted by the Pegasus spywareImage: Ludovic Marin/AFP

The Paris prosecutor's office opened an investigation Tuesday into the suspected widespread use of spyware, known as Pegasus.

It was made by the Israel-based NSO Group and allegedly used to target journalists, human rights activists and political dissidents.

Paris prosecutors said they were looking into a variety of charges, including violation of privacy, illegal use of data and illegally selling spyware. The investigation doesn't name a suspected perpetrator but is aimed at determining who could eventually be sent to trial.

A person uses their smartphone in front of the NSO Group building in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. Archive image from 2016.
NSO Group's Pegasus program is believed to have been used to spy on around 1,000 people in an array of countriesImage: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Iamges

Was Macron a target of the spyware?

French President Emmanuel Macron is one of 14 current or former heads of state who may have been targeted for hacking, Amnesty International said.

Presidents Imran Khan of Pakistan, Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and Barham Salih of Iraq are also believed to have been potential targets.

"The unprecedented revelation ... should send a chill down the spine of world leaders," Amnesty's secretary general, Agnes Callamard, said in a statement.

French newspaper Le Monde also reported Tuesday that the cellphones of Macron and 15 members of the French government may have been among potential targets of surveillance by the Pegasus software in 2019.

Macron's office responded to the report, saying that authorities would investigate the allegations, but that if the targeting of the president is proven, it would be ''extremely grave.''

Made in Germany - Cybercrime

What is Pegasus spyware?

An investigation published on Sunday by 17 media organizations, led by Paris-based nonprofit journalism group Forbidden Stories, said spyware made and licensed by NSO had been used to hack thousands of smartphones.

It identified thousands of individuals in 50 countries who were allegedly selected by NSO clients for potential surveillance by the software.

The media consortium identified the targets from a list of more than 50,000 cellphone numbers obtained by Forbidden Stories and rights group Amnesty International.

NSO has said its product was only sold to vetted government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime.

NSO Group denied that it ever maintained "a list of potential, past or existing targets," and called the report "full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories."

lc/msh (AP, Reuters)