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France asks for 'clarifications,' cites need for trust

Gantz said to assure France that Macron’s phone not hacked with NSO spyware

During Paris visit, defense minister tells French counterpart that espionage allegations against Israeli firm being taken seriously; ministers also discuss Iran, weapons in Lebanon

Defense Minister Benny Gantz is greeted by his French counterpart Florence Parly in Paris on July 28, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz is greeted by his French counterpart Florence Parly in Paris on July 28, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz flew on Wednesday to Paris, where he sought to put to bed reports that French President Emmanuel Macron had been a target of spyware sold by the Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO Group.

During a meeting with his counterpart Florence Parly, Gantz said that NSO’s technology had not been used to hack into the phones of Macron or other French officials, according to Channel 13.

“Israel is taking the allegations seriously,” Gantz told Parly, according to an Defense Ministry statement.

“[Gantz] 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.”

The Defense Ministry said previously that if it finds that NSO Group violated the terms of its export licenses, it will “take appropriate action.”

NSO has largely denied the claims made in the in-depth investigation published last week by a number of news outlets, and called the accusations part of an effort “to smear the whole Israeli cyber industry.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz is greeted by his French counterpart Florence Parly (hidden) in Paris on July 28, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

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’ defense ministers since 2013.

Parly, a Defense 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.”

The Pegasus spyware developed by NSO Group can switch on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvest its data, and is at the center of a storm after a list of about 50,000 potential surveillance targets worldwide was leaked to human rights groups.

‘Verification’ under way

In a bombshell investigation released last week, NSO was accused of selling the spyware to the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates, which used it to hack into the phones of dissidents and human rights activists.

According to the report, Morocco used the spyware to track several French journalists, and prosecutors in Paris opened an investigation into the allegations.

The phone numbers of Macron and top members of his government were among those found on a list of 50,000 numbers believed to be potential targets of the Pegasus spyware, although the investigation did not determine if he was actually hacked. Macron reportedly directly called Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last week to demand that Israel investigate the allegations.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks on his cellphone during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, on July 20, 2020. (John Thys, Pool Photo via AP)

Macron also changed his phone and number following the Pegasus revelations.

Israel’s defense establishment set up a committee to review NSO’s business, including the process through which export licenses are granted.

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

At the Wednesday meeting, Gantz and Parly 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, and with local Jewish community leaders.

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