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New Delhi: The phones of five current French cabinet ministers bore traces of Pegasus spyware, according to a news report published by investigative website Mediapart, which cited the results of an analysis conducted by the country’s security agencies.
In its report, the French website said the phones of the ministers for education, territorial cohesion, agriculture, housing and overseas – Jean-Michel Blanquer, Jacqueline Gourault, Julien Denormandie, Emmanuelle Wargon and Sébastien Lecornu – showed traces of Pegasus, a military-grade spyware created by the Israel-based NSO group.
The phone of one of Macron’s diplomatic advisers at the Élysée Palace had also been targeted, the report said.
Forensic analysis of their devices at the end of July 2021 revealed the presence of “suspect traces” of the spyware, Mediapart said, which cited a “report by French state intelligence services and a parallel criminal investigation by the Paris public prosecutor”.
On the list
Notably, the numbers of all five ministers were on a leaked list of numbers recently investigated by a group of international media organisations, including The Wire, called the Pegasus Project, which reported on the use of the spyware around the world.
While not all of them held their current portfolios at the time their numbers were entered onto the list, largely in 2019 and 2020, all of them were in the cabinet.
Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit, and Amnesty International, a human rights group, gained access to the list of numbers and shared it with the news organisations, which did further research and analysis. Amnesty’s Security Lab did forensic analyses on smartphones physically examined by the consortium.
The phones of the French ministers were not subjected to an examination by the consortium, which is why Mediapart‘s revelations, if true, represent the first confirmation that Pegasus spyware has been used to penetrate the upper echelons of a powerful Western democracy.
The Pegasus Project’s reportage also revealed that the phone numbers of French President Emmanuel Macron and most of his 20-strong cabinet were on the leaked list investigated by the consortium.
The NSO Group, which makes the Pegasus spyware and sells it to “vetted” governments across the world, has denied that the list has anything to do with the company.
In a fresh statement released on Thursday night, NSO said: “We stand by our previous statements regarding French government officials. They are not and have never been Pegasus targets. We won’t comment on anonymous source allegations.”
The ministers themselves declined to comment, as did the Élysée Palace and France’s digital security agency. However, according to Mediapart, at least one of the ministers has since changed both their telephone and phone number.
It was not clear which NSO clients might have used Pegasus to target the ministers’ phones. While several European media organisations have suggested that the customer may have been Morocco, the Moroccan government has denied that and has sued them for defamation.
The Pegasus Project is a collaborative investigation that involves more than 80 journalists from 17 news organisations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Read all our coverage here.