Israel tells France it takes spyware scandal seriously

Pegasus can switch on a phone's camera or microphone and harvest its data, and is at the centre of a storm after a list of about 50,000 potential surveillance targets worldwide was leaked to human rights groups.

This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group which features 'Pegasus' spyware, on display in Paris on July 21, 2021. Picture: AFP

PARIS - Israel's Defence Minister Benny Gantz told his French counterpart his country took "seriously" espionage allegations concerning the Pegasus software developed by Israeli firm NSO that is suspected of targeting President Emmanuel Macron and other French officials.

Gantz addressed the NSO issue when he met French Defence Minister Florence Parly and said that "Israel is taking the allegations seriously," according to an Israeli defence ministry statement.

"He noted that the State of Israel approves the export of cyber products exclusively to governmental entities, for lawful use and only for the purpose of preventing and investigating crime and counter-terrorism," the statement added.

"He also informed Minister Parly that officials visited NSO’s office today and that Israel is investigating the allegations thoroughly."

Parly told Gantz of the "clarifications which are expected today by France and on which depend the trust and mutual respect of our two countries," her ministry said, adding it was the first meeting of the two countries' defence ministers since 2013.

Parly, a defence ministry source said Tuesday, aimed "to find out what knowledge the Israeli government had of the activities of NSO's clients, and what arrangements were put in place -- and will be in the future, to prevent these highly intrusive tools being hijacked."

Pegasus can switch on a phone's camera or microphone and harvest its data, and is at the centre of a storm after a list of about 50,000 potential surveillance targets worldwide was leaked to human rights groups.

'VERIFICATION' UNDER WAY

Amnesty International and French media nonprofit, Forbidden Stories, collaborated with a clutch of media companies, including The Washington Post, The Guardian and Le Monde, to analyse and publish the list.

Macron had to change his phone and number.

Israel's defence establishment has set up a committee to review NSO's business, including the process through which export licences are granted.

Pegasus's list of alleged targets includes at least 600 politicians, 180 journalists, 85 human rights activists and 65 business leaders.

NSO insists its software is intended for use only in fighting terrorism and other crimes, and says it exports to 45 countries.

Le Monde newspaper and Radio France said Macron's phone numbers and those of former prime minister Edouard Philippe, as well as 14 government members including foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, were on the list of numbers chosen by a Moroccan state security service that used Pegasus for a possible hack.

"If these facts are confirmed... we will consider all the consequences, but first it must be proven they are confirmed," government spokesman Gabriel Attal said after a cabinet meeting, adding that "verification" was under way.

Frequently accused of aiding authoritarian regimes, NSO insists its Pegasus software serves only in theory to obtain intelligence on criminal networks and terrorists.

Gantz also discussed the Iran nuclear issue as well as concerns about weapons deliveries to Lebanon, his ministry said.

He also met with Bernard Emie, the head of France's foreign intelligence service DGSE.

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