Paris / Tel Aviv (dpa) – The possible espionage of the mobile phones of numerous heads of state and journalists with the surveillance software Pegasus has alarmed the international community.
According to the daily newspaper “Le Monde”, French President Emmanuel Macron and several members of the government were possible targets in 2019 for the surveillance program sold to government agencies by the Israeli company NSO. One of Macron’s mobile phone numbers is on a Moroccan security agency’s list for possible espionage. A number belonging to EU Council President Charles Michel may also have been spied on.
The “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, which has been involved in international investigation by several media outlets, wrote on Wednesday that the leak of the Pegasus project lists the numbers of 14 heads of state and government. The investigation team, which also includes NDR, WDR and the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, identified telephone contacts of government members from 20 countries and hundreds of government officials from more than 30 countries.
However, it was unclear whether the affected individuals named in the study were actually being spied on. Whether this happened cannot be “verified in individual cases,” according to a report by NDR and WDR. As the Belgian newspaper «Le Soir» reported, the number of Charles Michels became a potential target in 2019. The then Belgian Prime Minister was elected President of the European Council that year. When asked by the DPA, Michel’s spokesperson was told that they were aware of a threat and that ‘measures’ had been taken to limit risks.
It was also said on Tuesday in Paris from circles of Macron’s official residence that the media reports did not mean that Macron’s mobile phone was actually spying. However, if the reported facts turned out to be true, “of course they are very serious”. Clarification is necessary after the revelations. Macron has been using the affected song since 2017, wrote «Le Monde». He has also been available for the past few days. To clarify whether the Pegasus software was actually used to slow down the head of state’s phone, the device needs to be examined.
The human rights organization Amnesty International announced that the Pegasus surveillance software is used all over the world. This should also be used to spy on media workers, human rights defenders and activists. Amnesty, together with the French media organization Forbidden Stories, had made public the research project of more than 80 media professionals in 10 countries. Amnesty IT experts found the spy software on journalists’ phones.
“The Pegasus project demonstrates that NSO spyware is the tool of choice for repressive governments,” said Amnesty Secretary-General Agnès Callamard. For example, attempts are being made to silence journalists, attack activists and suppress opinions. Some 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets were investigated in the Pegasus leak.
The Israeli government is forming a special team of representatives from various ministries, Mossad’s foreign intelligence agency and the military, the internet news site Axios reported. Accordingly, there is concern in government circles that the reports could turn into a diplomatic crisis for Israel. A spokesman for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett declined to comment on the NSO when asked.
According to the Axios report, the disclosures about NSO’s export license could affect future activities of the company and other Israeli companies. The export license therefore also contains clauses about misuse of espionage software. According to the NSO, the technology is “sold only to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of controlled governments for the sole purpose of saving lives by preventing crime and terrorism.”
In South Africa, where President Cyril Ramaphosa was reportedly one of the victims of the spy software, his office initially reacted cautiously. “The office of the president is not commenting,” Ramaphosa spokesman Tyrone Seale said on Wednesday. According to a report in The Guardian, clients of the NSO government selected the phone numbers of more than 15,000 Mexicans as possible surveillance objects in 2016 and 2017. Among them were at least 50 people in the vicinity of current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
According to media in Spain, four Catalan separatists have also been attacked with Pegasus spy software. According to a report in the newspaper El País, the most prominent victim is the current Minister of Labor for the region in northeastern Spain, Roger Torrent. His mobile phone was the target of a Pegasus attack in 2019 when he was chairman of the Catalan regional parliament. Torrent accused the Spanish central government of being part of a “dirty war” against the Catalan separatists. The government in Madrid denied any involvement or knowledge of spying on Torrent and other Catalan separatists.
According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung report, international organizations were among the potential targets of state surveillance. The mobile phone number of the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is also on the list, as are the contacts of numerous UN ambassadors.