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French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly had to change his cell phone and SIM card, after it was revealed by a media investigation that he could have been targeted by Pegasus – military-grade spyware developed and leased to its international clients by the Israeli firm NSO Group.

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz will head to France on Wednesday to meet with his French counterpart Florence Parly to discuss strategic security; the scandal surrounding NSO Group is also on the agenda, according to the Jerusalem Post.

France’s Minister of the Armed Forces Parly and Gantz are expected to discuss the Iran nuclear deal, which has been in limbo since America’s unilateral withdrawal from the agreement in 2018, and the ongoing crisis in Lebanon.

The Israeli Defence Ministry said in a statement cited by the Times of Israel that Gantz is expected to provide Parly with “an update on the NSO affair”.

Pegasus ‘Affair’

NSO Group, an Israeli cybersecurity company, is a primary developer of Pegasus, software created for the purpose of hacking the phones of its targets, so that its users may read their messages, record calls, track down their locations and steal any data from the phone. The powerful spyware is even capable of turning on a phone’s microphone and camera to listen to the target’s in-room conversations.

The NSO insists that they lease Pegasus to foreign governments to help them track down and catch terrorists and other criminals, and are rather cautious about the system’s misuse. However, there has been a number of scandals related to the abuse of the spyware to target journalists, activists and common WhatsApp users. The recent scandal around Pegasus even left the French president worried.

© REUTERS / STRINGER

Israeli cyber firm NSO Group’s exhibition stand is seen at “ISDEF 2019”, an international defence and homeland security expo, in Tel Aviv, Israel June 4, 2019. Picture taken June 4, 2019.

A joint investigation by 17 media outlets, including the Guardian and Le Monde, claimed that the Pegasus system could have targeted some 50,000 phone numbers, including that of French President Emmanuel Macron. The French president could have been targeted by Moroccan intelligence, Le Monde claimed. Macron is said to have swiftly changed his phone and inserted a new SIM card following the news. He also apparently called Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last week, pressuring him to launch an inquiry into the claims. 

Morocco denied these allegations and announced that it was planning to lodge a libel complaint against Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, which led the media investigations.

Gantz previously said that the defence ministry was “studying the information” around the NSO activities. He added that Israel “authorises the export of cyber products solely to governments, only for lawful use, and exclusively for the purposes of preventing and investigating crime and terrorism.” However, his defence ministry noted that they were ready to take “appropriate action” against the NSO, if they found that it violated the terms of export licenses to foreign governments.

NSO Group has called allegations around its alleged involvement in surveillance of foreign activists, politicians and journalists a “vicious and slanderous campaign”.