Israeli lawmaker eyes spyware export curbs as French President Macron convenes Cabinet

Spyware sold by Israeli cyber-security firm NSO Group is alleged to have been abused in several countries. PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (REUTERS) - Israel's parliamentary review panel may recommend changes to defence export policy over high-profile allegations that spyware sold by Israeli cyber-security firm NSO Group has been abused in several countries, a senior lawmaker said on Thursday (July 22).

Among suspected targets of NSO's Pegasus software is French President Emmanuel Macron, who planned to convene his Cabinet on Thursday over calls for investigations.

"We certainly have to look anew at this whole subject of licences granted by Deca," Mr Ram Ben-Barak, head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, told Israel's Army Radio, referring to the government-run Defence Export Controls Agency.

Israel has appointed an inter-ministerial team to assess reports published since Sunday following an investigation by 17 media organisations, which said Pegasus software had been used in attempted and successful hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials and human rights activists.

Other world leaders among those whose phone numbers the news organisations said were on a list of possible targets include Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Morocco's King Mohammed VI.

NSO has rejected the reporting by the media partners as "full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories". Reuters has not independently verified the reporting.

The Israeli government team "will conduct its checks, and we will be sure to look into the findings and see if we need to fix things here", said Mr Ben-Barak, a former deputy chief of national intelligence agency Mossad.

"Truth be told, this system (Pegasus) has uncovered a lot of terrorist cells and criminal families and helped a great many people. If it has been used wrongly, or if it was sold to irresponsible parties, that is something that needs checking."

Deca is within Israel's Defence Ministry and oversees NSO exports. Both the ministry and the firm have said Pegasus is meant to be used to track only terrorists or criminals, and that all foreign clients are vetted governments.

NSO says it does not know the specific identities of people against whom clients use Pegasus, but that if it receives complaints it can acquire the target lists and unilaterally shut down the software for any clients found to have abused it.

After Army Radio also aired an interview on Thursday with Mr Szabolcs Panyi, a Hungarian journalist who said Pegasus had been found on his cellphone, NSO chief Shalev Hulio vowed to investigate.

"If he was indeed a target, I can assure you already that we will cut off the systems of whoever took action against him, because it's intolerable for someone to do something like this," Mr Hulio told the station.

In keeping with NSO and Defence Ministry reticence about identifying client countries, Mr Hulio stopped short of confirming that Hungary had bought Pegasus. He said NSO has worked with 45 countries and rejected around 90 others as potential clients.

The company has shut down five Pegasus systems for abuse, Mr Hulio said, adding that the software cannot be used against Israeli or US mobile phones.

When asked on Thursday whether the Hungarian government had purchased Pegasus, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff Gergely Gulyas said details concerning secret intelligence gathering were "not public information".

He added that all such intelligence gathering was conducted lawfully.

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