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Phones of 5 French ministers said infected with malware from Israel’s NSO Group

Intrusions believed to have taken place in 2019 and 2020; separately, Israeli-made spyware confirmed on phone of UAE human rights activist

A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, August 24, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, August 24, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

The mobile phones of at least five French ministers and a diplomatic advisor to President Emmanuel Macron were infected by the Israeli-made Pegasus spyware, sources told AFP on Friday, confirming a report by the Mediapart investigative website.

French security services detected the software while inspecting the phones, with the intrusions believed to have taken place in 2019 and 2020, according to the report from Mediapart on Friday.

Pegasus, made by the Israeli firm NSO Group, can switch on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvest its data, and was at the center of a storm in July after a list of about 50,000 potential surveillance targets worldwide was leaked to the media.

The media consortium behind the revelations, including The Washington Post, The Guardian and France’s Le Monde, reported at the time that one of Macron’s phone numbers and those of many French cabinet ministers were on the leaked list of potential targets.

French authorities declined to comment on Friday.

The five ministers targeted are Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, Territorial Cohesion Minister Jacqueline Gourault, Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie, Housing Minister Emmanuelle Wargon and Overseas Territories Minister Sebastien Lecornu, Mediapart said.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech on September 17, 2021 in Paris. (Michel Euler/Pool/AFP)

Two French sources with knowledge of the investigation confirmed the veracity of the report, while asking not to be identified by name because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

“My phone is one of those checked out by the national IT systems security agency, but I haven’t yet heard anything about the investigation so I cannot comment at this stage,” Wargon told the L’Opinion website Friday.

One of her aides told AFP that “the minister doesn’t have access to any state secrets, so we can’t really see the point of spying on her.”

In July, Le Monde reported that evidence of an attempted hacking was found on the phone of the former environment minister and close Macron ally Francois de Rugy, with the attempt allegedly originating in Morocco.

Morocco’s intelligence services were also accused of being behind the hacking of journalists in France, but the kingdom’s government has denied the claims and launched legal action alleging defamation.

Macron reportedly called Prime Minister Naftali Bennett personally in July to make sure the Israeli government was properly looking into allegations involving the spyware.

Meanwhile, the Guardian reported Friday that new evidence suggested that the Israeli malware may have been used to target Emirati activist Alaa Al-Siddiq.

Emirati activist Alaa Al-Siddiq (via ALQST)

The phone of Al-Siddiq, who died earlier this year in a car crash British authorities have said is non-suspicious, was examined by researchers at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.

The activist was the executive director of ALQST, a non-profit advocating for human rights in the Middle East, including the UAE.

Researchers found that Al-Siddiq was probably hacked by a governmental client of the NSO Group, starting in 2015 when she lived in Qatar, up until 2020 while she was living in the United Kingdom.

She is now one of the first confirmed victims of a malware attack using Pegasus, the Guardian said.

NSO said in a statement to the Guardian: “As always, when we get credible information on an alleged misuse, we conduct a thorough investigation and act upon the findings.”

NSO has insisted that its software was intended for use only in fighting terrorism and other crimes, and the reported targeting list was not related to the company.

Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid played down criticism of Israel’s regulation of NSO Group but vowed to step up efforts to ensure the company’s controversial spyware doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

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