France investigates the use of NSO spyware; Macron a possible target
PARIS (AP) – The cellphones of French President Emmanuel Macron and 15 members of the French government may have been among the potential targets in 2019 of spyware surveillance carried out by the Israeli group NSO, according to a news report on Tuesday.
The Le Monde report follows an announcement by the Paris prosecutor’s office that it is investigating the alleged widespread use of NSO’s Pegasus spyware to target journalists, human rights activists and politicians in several countries.
Le Monde is part of a global media consortium that identified the targets from a leaked list of more than 50,000 mobile phone numbers obtained by the Paris journalism association Forbidden Stories and the rights group humans Amnesty International and shared with 16 news organizations that began publishing findings on Sunday.
On the same day, Amnesty published a forensic analysis of the alleged targeting which showed that Amazon Web Services hosted the NSO infrastructure. In response, Amazon said it closed NSO accounts that were “confirmed to support the reported hacking activity.” Amazon said it violated its terms of service.
Another American company identified by Amnesty as hosting NSO servers was DigitalOcean. Contacted by the Associated Press, DigitalOcean has neither confirmed nor denied having identified or shut down such servers.
“All the infrastructure described in Amnesty’s report is no longer on DigitalOcean,” he said Tuesday without giving details in an emailed statement.
Le Monde said the phone numbers of Macron and members of the government at the time were among thousands allegedly selected by ONS clients for potential surveillance. In this case, the client was an unidentified Moroccan security service, according to Le Monde.
Members of the consortium said they were able to link more than 1,000 numbers on the list to individuals, including more than 600 politicians and government officials and 189 journalists. Among the figures were those of journalists and politicians in France. The largest share was in Mexico and the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia is reportedly among NSO clients.
The list also included phone numbers in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Morocco and Rwanda, as well as those of several members of the Arab royal family, heads of state and prime ministers, the consortium reported.
An official in Macron’s office said authorities would investigate the Le Monde report and if the targeting was proven it would be “extremely serious.”
According to Le Monde, NSO said the French president had never been targeted by his clients.
NSO Group denied ever having kept “a list of potential targets, past or existing”. He called the Forbidden Stories report “full of flawed assumptions and unsubstantiated theories.”
The source of the leak – and how it was authenticated – has not been disclosed. While the presence of a phone number in the data doesn’t mean an attempt was made to hack a device, the consortium said it believed the data pointed to potential targets of NSO’s government customers.
The Paris prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Tuesday that it had opened an investigation into a series of potential charges, including invasion of privacy, illegal use of data and illegal sale of spyware.
As is common in French law, the investigation does not designate an alleged author but aims to determine who could possibly be brought to justice. It was motivated by a complaint filed by two journalists and the French investigation site Mediapart.
Angela Charlton in Paris, Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia and Frank Bajak in Boston contributed reporting.