Israel firm NSO says French President Macron not targeted by Pegasus spyware

NSO Group's controversial Pegasus spyware tool can hack into mobile phones without a user knowing. PHOTO: AFP

HERZLIYA, ISRAEL (AFP) - An official at Israeli cyber-security company NSO Group said on Wednesday (July 21) that the firm's controversial Pegasus spyware tool was not used to target French President Emmanuel Macron.

The comments came as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged Israel to suspend exports of the spying technology after heads of state - including Mr Macron - and scores of journalists and rights activists featured on a list of alleged targets selected for potential surveillance.

We can "specifically come out and say for sure that the President of France... was not a target", Mr Chaim Gelfand, chief compliance officer at NSO, told the i24 News television network.

But he also alluded to "some cases brought up that we are not so comfortable with", noting that in such circumstances, the firm "usually approaches the customer and has a whole long discussion... to try to understand what were his legitimate reasons, if any, to use the system".

Mr Gelfand's comments were broadcast on the same day that RSF head Christophe Deloire called on Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett "to impose an immediate moratorium on surveillance technology exports, until a protective regulatory framework has been established".

Mr Deloire's call came after a list was leaked of some 50,000 phone numbers believed to have been chosen by clients of NSO. The numbers purportedly included those of Mr Macron, and 13 other heads of state.

Pegasus can hack into mobile phones without a user knowing, enabling clients to read every message, track a user's location and tap the phone's camera and microphone.

Contracts with 45 countries

NSO has contracts with 45 countries, and says Israel's Defence Ministry must approve its deals. The company does not identify its customers.

But rights group Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based organisation which obtained the list, said NSO's government clients include Bahrain, India, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia.

Reporting by media outlets including The Guardian, Le Monde and The Washington Post found that nearly 200 journalists from organisations including Agence France-Presse were on the list.

"Enabling governments to install spyware that is used in practice to monitor hundreds of journalists and their sources throughout the world poses a major democratic problem," Mr Deloire said.

Spokesmen for Israel's Mr Bennett and Defence Minister Benny Gantz did not respond to questions from AFP on Wednesday.

NSO, a giant of Israeli technology, is based in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, and has 850 employees.

Its chief excutive Shalev Hulio, 39, denied in an interview with Israel's 103FM radio on Tuesday that his company was engaged in mass surveillance. He said NSO had "no connection" to the list of thousands of phone numbers.

On Wednesday, Mr Bennett touted Israeli technological prowess at a cyber conference in Tel Aviv.

"Of every US$100 (S$137) invested in cyber defence across the world, US$41 of those were invested in Israeli cyber-defence firms," he said.

"We as a government, we as a nation, have to defend ourselves," he added.

He suggested that global interest in Israeli technology remained robust, saying "dozens of countries" have signed memorandums to obtain Israeli tools that defend against cyber attacks.

A further statement on Wednesday by NSO claimed that the firm was a victim of a "vicious and slanderous campaign", and that it would no longer respond to media questions.

"Any claim that a name in the list is necessarily related to a Pegasus target or Pegasus potential target is erroneous and false," it said.

"NSO is a technology company. We do not operate the system, nor do we have access to the data of our customers, yet they are obligated to provide us with such information under investigations," the company added.

On Tuesday, Mr Gantz said Israel approves export of technology only to governments "exclusively for the purposes of preventing and investigating crime and terrorism".

He said Israel is studying recent publications on the subject.

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