France’s Macron Changes Phone, After NSO Pegasus Report

The furore surrounding Israeli surveillance specialist NSO Group and its Pegasus spyware, has drawn a reaction from French President Emmanuel Macron.

According to a French presidency official on Thursday, President Macron has changed both his mobile phone and phone number in light of the Pegasus spyware row.

The row has been triggered after a number of damning allegations about NSO and its Pegasus spyware were made this week by the Pegasus Project. This 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.

NSO allegations

Earlier this week the consortium alleged that NSO’s Pegasus spyware had been used “to facilitate human rights violations around the world on a massive scale.”

The Pegasus Project alleged it had conducted “cutting-edge forensic tests on mobile phones to identify traces of the spyware.”

It alleged that it had obtained a list of 50,000 phones of alleged potential targets for spyware, including activists, politicians and journalists, including Jamal Khashoggi’s family.

It then uncovered new evidence that allegedly 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, were selected as people of interest by clients of NSO.

The Washington Post, part of the Pegasus Project consortium, revealed the phone numbers for 14 heads of state included the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Iraq’s Barham Salih, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, Egypt’s Mostafa Madbouly, Pakistan’s Imran Khan, Morocco’s Saad-Eddine El Ohtmani, Lebanon’s Saad Hariri, Uganda’s Ruhakana Rugunda, and Belgium’s Charles Michel.

Of the people whose numbers are on the list, 67 agreed to give Forbidden Stories their phones for forensic analysis. The Pegasus Project reportedly found evidence of potential targeting by Pegasus on 37 of those.

Amnesty International said that it was unable to conduct forensic analysis on the phones of world leaders to confirm whether they were targeted or if spyware was successfully installed.

NSO denials

NSO has consistently denied the “false claims” of the media consortium and said its surveillance tools are used by governments and law enforcement agencies.

A senior NSO official denied the heads of state spying allegation, and said that its software was not used to target President Macron.

We can “specifically come out and say for sure that the president of France, Macron, was not a target,” Chaim Gelfand, chief compliance officer at NSO Group, was quoted by NDTV.com as telling the i24 News television network.

On Wednesday, NSO made clear its frustration with the allegations swirling around the company, and it published a statement entitled “Enough is Enough”, and confirmed it would not be responding to any more media inquires.

It also said that blaming the company for the actions of its clients is like “criticising a car manufacturer when a drunk driver crashes.”

French reaction

Despite the head of NSO rebutting the compromise allegation of President Macron’s phone (and other leaders), the French President has reportedly responded.

According to France24, French President Emmanuel Macron has changed his phone and phone number in light of allegations that Pegasus spyware might have targeted him, a presidency official was quoted as saying on Thursday, the same day Macron held an emergency meeting on cybersecurity at the Élysée Palace.

Macron has reportedly demanded “a strengthening of all security protocols” regarding sensitive means of communication, the Élysée said.

The emergency cybersecurity meeting on Thursday reportedly included whether the French government should respond to the reports that Macron’s mobile phone and those of government ministers may have been targeted by spyware.

Macron changes his phones regularly and is “taking the matter very seriously”, government spokesman Gabriel Attal reportedly said Thursday on France-Inter radio.

Moroccan allegations

French newspaper Le Monde, a member of the Pegasus Project, reported that a Moroccan security agency had the mobile phones of Macron and 15 then members of the French government on a list of potential targets of the spyware in 2019.

Morocco’s government has denied wrongdoing and has threatened legal action over the “unfounded” spyware allegations.

Meanwhile France24 reported that prosecutors in Paris said Tuesday they had opened a probe into allegations that Moroccan intelligence services used Pegasus to spy on several French journalists.

The investigation will examine 10 different charges, including whether there was a breach of personal privacy, fraudulent access to personal electronic devices and any criminal associations among those involved.

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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