August 3, 2021

Israeli spyware, journalists and heads of state targeted … What we know about the global cyber surveillance affair

They are activists, journalists, political opponents, but also heads of state like Emmanuel Macron. They were all targeted, and even spied on, by software developed by the Israeli company NSO called Pegasus. This investigation revealed Sunday by the consortium of journalists Forbidden Stories, to which belongs the investigation unit of Radio France, continues to have repercussions around the world, questioning in particular the practices of countries which are allies of France. Franceinfo summarizes what we know about this international scandal.

Ultra-sophisticated Israeli spyware

The Forbidden Stories journalist consortium’s investigation focuses on Israeli company NSO Group spyware: Pegasus. This one enters a smartphone and allows you to retrieve messages, photos, contacts and even listen to calls from its owner. He can also take control of the microphone, turning the phone into a cookie and geolocating the device. He has been the subject of media inquiries since 2016, following the alert of a dissident Emirati human rights defender, Ahmed Mansoor, sentenced to ten years in prison.


This time, the journalists’ work is based on a list they obtained, which they said had 50,000 phone numbers selected by NSO clients since 2016 for potential surveillance. It includes the numbers of at least 180 journalists, 600 politicians, 85 human rights activists and 65 business leaders. Many numbers have been located in Morocco, Saudi Arabia or Mexico.

A consortium of journalists behind the revelations

Behind these revelations, we find the platform Forbidden Stories, who coordinated this 17 international media investigation into the Israeli software. The investigation unit of Radio France is one of them in particular. This platform was launched in 2017 on an idea by French documentary filmmaker Laurent Richard, with the support of the NGO Reporters Without Borders.

This is not the first feat of arms of this “non-profit association based in France and registered under the name of Freedom Voices Network”, which depends on “financial support from philanthropic organizations” and of “public donations”. She has given herself the mission of “continue and publish the work” of colleagues “threatened, imprisoned or [qui] were murdered “, as she explains on her website.

Opponents and heads of state targeted

This list includes the numbers of many journalists. We can cite, for example, that of the Mexican Cecilio Pineda Birto, shot dead a few weeks after his appearance on this document, as well as those of foreign correspondents of several media including the Wall Street Journal, CNN, France 24, The country or AFP. The consortium also revealed that the numbers of Mediapart journalists Lénaïg Bredoux and Edwy Plenel were among the 10,000 that Morocco’s secret services targeted.. This espionage coincided with “the repression of independent journalism in Morocco”, in particular towards the imprisoned investigative journalist Omar Radi. Amnesty International denounced in 2020 the infection of this journalist’s phone by Pegasus.

The numbers of former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe as well as those of 14 members of his government were also targeted by a Moroccan state security service which uses Pegasus. These include Jean-Yves Le Drian, Christophe Castaner, Gérald Darmanin, Bruno Le Maire or François de Rugy. Laptopshe deputies have also been infiltrated like those of Gilles Le Gendre (LREM), François Bayrou (MoDem) or Adrien Quatennens (La France insoumise).

Pegasus project: negligence at the top of the state?

The French head of state has also been potentially targeted. Rabat selected one of its numbers in 2019 for a possible infection of one of its phones with the Pegasus software. This is the number that hashad already “leaked” between the two rounds of the 2017 presidential election with les “MacronLeaks” and that Emmanuel Macron continued to use once at the Elysee Palace. To date, it is not possible to say that the president’s cellphone French has indeed been infected because the consortium is not in a position to assess it.

Surprisingly, the number of the king of Morocco is also one of those selected as potential targets for Pegasus. Just like his entourage, whether it be members of the royal family or the staff. In Dubai, it was Princess Latifa who was targeted by spyware when she fled the country.

A judicial counter-attack launched

In France, the news site Mediapart and the satirical weekly The chained Duck announced on Monday that they were filing a complaint in Paris. On the policy side, complaints are also underway. MP Cédric Villani, also targeted, announced to Franceinfo on Wednesday that he was going to do so “to mark the occasion” while La France insoumise announced the same day to also seize justice.

On the side of the Elysee, caution seems to be in order as long as investigations have not been made. “If these facts are true, they are very serious. All light will be shed on these revelations”, thus ensured the presidency of the Republic. Salton France Inter, Emmanuel Macron takes the matter very seriously and verifications are underway. This is also what Jean Castex confirmed on Wednesday on TF1: “We’ll be looking at this very closely, given the potential severity”, said the head of government, indicating that the president had already “ordered a whole series of investigations”.

The Paris prosecutor’s office also opened an investigation on Tuesday into the spying of French journalists. Ten offenses are listed there including “invasion of privacy”, “interception of correspondence”, “fraudulent access” to a computer system and “criminal association”. Asked by deputies on Tuesday about the presence of French journalists and politicians in the Pegasus list, Prime Minister Jean Castex replied that investigations were underway to verify “materiality” of the alleged facts. The President of the Senate, Gérard Larcher, for his part assured Wednesday on franceinfo to be “certain that the parliamentary intelligence delegation” will take up this matter.

Several countries and NSO deny espionage accusations

They all deny it as a whole. The countries accused of using Pegasus have all rejected the accusations. DIn a statement released on Monday, Morocco denounced the information “lies” according to which the security services of the kingdom “infiltrated the phones of several national and foreign public figures and heads of international organizations through computer software.” Same denial on the part of Hungary: “The Director General [des services secrets] informed me that no cooperation has been established with the Israeli intelligence services “, reacted Monday the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs in a press conference. Mexico, accused of having spied on 25 journalists, assured through the voice of its president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, that “no one is being spied on anymore, freedoms are guaranteed”.

For its part, the NSO group has, as always, “strongly denied the false accusations made” in the survey. This one “is full of flawed assumptions and unsubstantiated theories, the sources have provided information that has no factual basis”, he writes on his site.

UN calls for new rules

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Monday that crevelations “confirm the urgent need to better regulate the sale, transfer and use” of these surveillance technologies “and to ensure strict control and authorization”. “Without a regulatory framework that respects human rights, there is simply too much risk that these tools will be misused to intimidate critics and silence those who challenge.”, she added.