PARIS: The cellphones of French President Emmanuel Macron and 15 members of the French government may have been among potential targets in 2019 of surveillance by spyware made by the Israel-based NSO Group, according to a newspaper report on Tuesday.
The Paris prosecutor’s office announced it is investigating the suspected widespread use of the Pegasus spyware to target journalists, human rights activists and politicians in multiple countries.
French daily Le Monde reported that the phone numbers of Macron and then government members were identified among thousands allegedly selected by NSO clients for potential surveillance. In this case, the client was an unidentified Moroccan security service, according to Le Monde.
Le Monde was part of a global media consortium that identified the targets from a list of more than 50,000 cellphone numbers obtained by the Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and the human rights group Amnesty International and shared with 16 news organisations.
Consortium members said they were able to link more than 1,000 numbers on the list with individuals, including more than 600 politicians and government officials and 189 journalists. Among the numbers were those of journalists and politicians in France.
The consortium’s reporting has said several Arab royal family members, heads of state and prime ministers were on the list.
An official in Macron’s office said authorities would investigate the report, and if the targeting is proven, it would be “extremely grave”.
Le Monde quoted NSO as saying the French president was never targeted by its clients.
NSO Group denied that it ever maintained “a list of potential, past or existing targets”. It called the Forbidden Stories report “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories”.
The source of the leak — and how it was authenticated — was not disclosed. While a phone number’s presence in the data does not mean an attempt was made to hack a device, the consortium said it believed the data indicated potential targets of NSO’s government clients.
The Paris prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Tuesday that it opened an investigation into a raft of potential charges, including violation of privacy, illegal use of data and illegally selling spyware.
As is common under French law, the investigation doesn’t name a suspected perpetrator but is aimed at determining who might eventually be sent to trial. It was prompted by a legal complaint by two journalists and French investigative website Mediapart.