Espionage

French journalists among those targeted by Israeli spyware Pegasus

The Pegasus malware can activate a phone's camera and microphone, acting as a pocket spy.
The Pegasus malware can activate a phone's camera and microphone, acting as a pocket spy. © AFP/Sajjad Hussain/File

An international probe has found an Israeli company accused of giving spyware to governments targeted tens of thousands of activists, journalists, business executives and politicians in countries including France – where more than 1,000 people were hit.

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Sunday's revelations are part of a collaborative investigation conducted by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit that worked with an international media consortium including the Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde and others.

Their probe focused on Pegasus, highly invasive tool that can switch on a target's phone camera and microphone, as well as access data on the device, effectively turning a phone into a pocket spy.

Leaked date linked Pegasus, developed by the NSO Group, an Israeli technology firm, to more than 50,000 smartphone numbers since 2016.

Many numbers on the list were clustered in 10 countries: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Smartphone hacking software

The Pegasus spyware is only marketed to states or government agencies, with the approval of the Israeli government.

Founded in 2010 by Israelis Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, NSO Group is based in the Israeli hi-tech hub of Herzliya, near Tel Aviv.

On its website, NSO states that it "creates technologies that help government agencies prevent and investigate terrorism and crime, saving thousands of lives around the world". 

Over 1,000 French people targeted

According to the investigation, a Moroccan security service appears to have used Pegasus to target 1,000 French people including some 30 journalists and media executives. 

Among them were journalists working for Le Monde, Le Canard Enchaîné, Le Figaro, Agence France-Presse and France Télévisions.

"On several occasions, the Forbidden Stories consortium and the Security Lab of the NGO Amnesty International have been able to technically determine that the infection with Pegasus had been successful," writes Le Monde.

Individual targets included Edwy Plenel, founder of the online news site Mediapart, Dominique Simonnot, former investigator of Le Canard Enchaîné and a Le Monde journalist who wished to remain anonymous.

"The spying on my phone ... leads directly to the Moroccan services, as part of the repression of independent journalism and social movement," twitted Plenel on Sunday.

Last year Amnesty International denounced the infection of the phone of Moroccan investigative journalist Omar Radi by the spyware Pegasus.

NSO has denied the allegations, which it said were "full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories", and has threatened a defamation lawsuit.

(With wires)

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