A global investigation led by an international consortium of journalists, created by Forbidden Stories, in which Amnesty International and sixteen international media participate, has yielded revelations of widespread cyber-surveillance.
It is undoubtedly one of the biggest spy scandals of the decade, surely the most important since the Snowden affair, and which concerns at least eleven states around the world.
Baptized “Project Pegasus”, this new global scandal on surveillance, brings to light the practices of a dozen countries which have in common in recent years having used, without the slightest control, a powerful spyware marketed by a private Israeli company, NSO.
The properties of Israeli company NSO Group spyware Pegasus are formidable. No need to access a corrupted link, no manipulation of the targeted user is necessary, if it is introduced into a smartphone, it allows you to retrieve messages, photos, contacts, and even listen to calls from its owner. NSO, regularly accused of playing the game of authoritarian regimes, has always ensured that its software was used only to obtain information against criminal or terrorist networks.
But the investigation published on Sunday by this consortium of seventeen international media, including the French dailies Le Monde, the British The Guardian and the American The Washington Post, is undermining its credibility.
Forbidden Stories discovered that, contrary to the commitments made by NSO, recalled by the company in a report published in June 2021, this software has been the subject of numerous abuses for the past five years. The list of numbers analyzed by the consortium shows thatat least 180 journalists have been selected as targets with this software around the world, particularly in India, Mexico, Morocco and France. Among the selected numbers there are also those of human rights activists, academics, trade unionists, diplomats, politicians and several heads of state.
Eleven countries around the world that are NSO customers
A total of eleven NSO customer countries and users of the Pegasus software were identified by the survey. These are Morocco, India, Mexico, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and, finally, Hungary, only European country implicated. Alone, Mohammed VI’s Morocco is believed to have targeted ten thousand phone numbers in the past two years.
“Today, we discover, for the first time in the history of modern espionage, the face of the victims of cybersurveillance and its sometimes dramatic consequences.“comments Laurent Richard, director and founder of Forbidden Stories in the columns of the MediaPart site.
Activists, journalists and opponents around the world have been spied on
Their Consortium work is based on a list obtained by the France-based network Forbidden Stories and the NGO Amnesty International, which they say has 50,000 phone numbers selected by NSO clients since 2016 for potential surveillance.
It includes the numbersat least 180 journalists, 600 politicians, 85 human rights activists or 65 business leaders, according to the analysis carried out by the consortium which has located many numbers in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.
On this list appears the number of the Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda Birto, shot 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, Mediapart, El Pais, or the ‘AFP.
More than 1,000 French targeted
France is not a client of NSO. But several journalists from France are among the numbers selected. This is the case of two journalists from Mediapart, including its founder Edwy Plenel.
The French information site Mediapart on Monday announced the filing of a complaint in Paris, after reports that the phones of two of its journalists were spied on by a Moroccan service, using Israeli software Pegasus.
According to FranceInfo, still among the selected numbers, that of Dominique Simonnot, the current controller general of places of deprivation of liberty (CGLPL), who until 2020 was a journalist at Le Canard enchaîné, or Bruno Delport, the director of TSF Jazz, who in 2019 applied for the presidency of Radio France. Those also of colleagues from Le Monde, France 2, France 24, RFI, that of Rosa Moussaoui of L’Humanité, former head of the AFP office in Rabat, as well as the editorialist of Figaro Eric Zemmour.
37 aircraft attacked
Journalists from the “Project Pegasus” met some of the holders of these numbers and recovered 67 phones which underwent technical expertise in an Amnesty laboratory.
It confirmed an infection or attempted infection with NSO’s spyware for 37 devices, including 10 located in India, according to reports released on Sunday.
Two of the phones belong to women close to the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, assassinated in 2018 in his country’s consulate in Istanbul by a commando of agents from Saudi Arabia, they write.
For the other 30, the results are not convincing, often because the owners of the numbers have changed phones. “There is a strong temporal correlation between the moment when the numbers appeared on the list and their placing under surveillance”, specifies in particular the Washington Post.
This analysis comes in addition to a study, conducted in 2020, by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which confirmed the presence of Pegasus in the phones of dozens of employees of the Al-Jazeera channel in Qatar.
WhatsApp had filed a complaint in 2019 against NSO, accusing it of having provided the technology to infect the smartphones of a hundred journalists, human rights defenders and other members of civil society including various countries including India.
The Indian government in 2019 refuted accusations by members of the opposition that it used the software to spy on its citizens. He reiterated earlier this week that “the allegations of government surveillance of specific individuals have no concrete basis or truth.”
Amnesty International had already denounced in 2020 the infection of the phone of Moroccan investigative journalist Omar Radi by the spyware Pegasus.
Gabriel Attal, denounces “extremely shocking facts”
On France Info this Monday morning, the spokesperson for the French government denounced “extremely shocking facts” after the revelations about the spying of around thirty journalists and French media bosses by the Moroccan intelligence services via software Israeli.
“These are extremely shocking facts, and, if they are true, extremely serious,” Mr Attal said. “We are extremely attached to the freedom of the press, so it is very serious to have manipulations, techniques which aim to undermine the freedom of journalists, their freedom to investigate, to inform“, he added.
The NSO company denied the “false” allegations published by the collective
NSO says its flagship product, sold exclusively to government customers, “only collects data from the mobile devices of people suspected of being involved in serious criminal and terrorist activity. “
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