France Holds Secret Talks With Israel Over NSO Spyware

A very senior official in the French government has met his Israeli counterpart, to discuss and resolve the fallout from NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware furore.

The Guardian newspaper reported last week that a top adviser to the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has met with his Israeli counterpart and held ‘secret’ talks.

They reportedly discussed the alleged targeting of French ministers by a client of Israeli surveillance specialist NSO Group.

Last month the investigative website Mediapart alleged that traces of Pegasus spyware had been found on the mobile phones of at least five current French cabinet ministers. It cited multiple anonymous sources and a confidential intelligence dossier as its source.

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Pegasus spyware

The Pegasus spyware furore has been ongoing for a while now.

In October 2019 NSO was sued by Facebook over an allegation it was behind the cyberattack that infected WhatsApp users with advanced surveillance hacks in May 2019.

NSO always said it only supplies to law enforcement and governments, but privacy campaigners in December last year said they had found multiple cases in which its spyware was deployed on the devices of dissidents or journalists.

And matters really ramped up in July this year, when the Pegasus Project alleged that NSO’s Pegasus spyware had been used “to facilitate human rights violations around the world on a massive scale.

The Pegasus Project is a global media consortium of more than 80 journalists around the world, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media non-profit, with the technical support of Amnesty International.

It allegedly uncovered evidence that revealed that the phone numbers for 14 heads of state, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Pakistan’s Imran Khan and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, as well as 600 government officials and politicians from 34 countries, had appeared in a leaked database at the heart of the investigative project.

President Macron changed both his mobile and phone number in light of the Pegasus row.

President Macron also telephoned the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, to ensure that the Israeli government was “properly investigating” the allegations that he may have been targeted with spyware by Morocco’s security services.

This resulted in officials from the Israeli defence ministry ‘visiting’ the offices of NSO near Tel Aviv.

Secret meeting

And now the Guardian newspaper has reported that a senior official in the government of Naftali Bennett, the Israeli prime minister, held “secret” meetings at the Élysée Palace.

These meetings were first reported by the news website Axios and then confirmed by the Guardian’s partners in the Pegasus Project, a consortium of media outlets that have investigated NSO.

The meeting between Emmanuel Bonne, a senior diplomatic adviser to Macron, and Eyal Hulata, Israel’s national security adviser, was reportedly aimed at ending the “crisis” that has engulfed the two countries’ relationship since the summer.

“It is not for NSO to comment on the existence or content of diplomatic meetings,” a spokesperson for NSO was quoted by the Guardian newspaper as saying, in response to the Israeli-French talks.

“However, regarding the allegations of the Pegasus Project, we stand by our previous statements: the so-called list is not a list of Pegasus targets, hence the French government officials mentioned are not and never have been Pegasus targets,” the spokesperson said.

Axios reported that the “crisis” between the two countries led to a “partial freeze” on diplomatic, security, and intelligence cooperation between Israel and France and the suspension of high-level bilateral visits.

Israel’s Hulata reportedly briefed France’s Bonne on the status of an Israeli investigation into Pegasus, and proposed a commitment to ban its clients from being able to penetrate French mobile numbers.

It should be noted that US, UK, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand-based numbers are also reportedly off limits to NSO clients.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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