Pegasus spyware found on journalists’ phones, French intelligence confirms

French intelligence investigators have confirmed that Pegasus spyware has been found on the phones of three journalists, including a senior member of staff at the country’s international television station France 24.

It is the first time an independent and official authority has corroborated the findings of an international investigation by the Pegasus project – a consortium of 17 media outlets, including the Guardian. Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based nonprofit media organisation, and Amnesty International initially had access to a leaked list of 50,000 numbers that, it is believed, have been identified as those of people of interest by clients of Israeli firm NSO Group since 2016, and shared access with their media partners.

France’s national agency for information systems security (Anssi) identified digital traces of NSO Group’s hacking spyware on the television journalist’s phone and relayed its findings to the Paris public prosecutor’s office, which is overseeing the investigation into possible hacking.

Anssi also found Pegasus on telephones belonging to Lénaïg Bredoux, an investigative journalist at the French investigative website Mediapart, and the site’s director, Edwy Plenel.

Forbidden Stories believes at least 180 journalists worldwide may have been selected as people of interest in advance of possible surveillance by government clients of NSO.

A source at France 24 said the broadcaster had been “extremely shocked” to discover one of its staff had potentially been monitored.

“We are stupefied and angry that journalists could be the object of spying. We will not be taking this lying down. There will be legal action,” the source said.

Le Monde reported that the France 24 journalist, based in Paris, had been selected for “eventually putting under surveillance”. Police experts discovered the spyware had been used to target the journalist’s phone three times: in May 2019, settembre 2020 and January 2021, the paper said.

Bredoux told the Guardian that investigators had found traces of Pegasus spyware on both her and Plenel’s mobile phones. She said the confirmation of long-held suspicions that they had been targeted contradicted the repeated denials of those who were believed to be behind the attempt to spy on them.

“It puts an end to the idea that this is all lies and fake news. It’s the proof we need,” Bredoux said.

French politicians expressed shock after the mobile numbers of the president, Emmanuel Macron, former prime minister Édouard Philippe and 14 serving ministers, including those for justice and foreign affairs, appeared in the leaked data. Research by the Pegasus project suggests that Morocco was the country that may have been interested in Macron and his senior team, raising fears that their phones were selected by one of France’s close diplomatic allies.​

NSO said Macron was not and never had been a “target” of any of its customers, meaning the company denies he was selected for surveillance or was surveilled using Pegasus. The company added that the fact that a number appeared on the list was in no way indicative of whether that number was selected for surveillance using Pegasus.

Morocco has “categorically” rejected and condemned what it called “unfounded and false allegations” that it had used Pegasus to spy on high-profile international figures. Lawyers for the government said last week that it had filed defamation claims in Paris against Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories.

Bredoux added: “It takes a bit of time to realise it, but it’s extremely unpleasant to think that one is being spied on, that photos of your husband and children, your friends – who are all collateral victims – are being looked at; that there is no space in which you can escape. It’s very disturbing.”

But Bredoux, who in 2015 wrote a series of articles on Abdellatif Hammouchi, the director general of Moroccan internal intelligence, said her main concern was for the journalists’ contacts.

“As journalists, what is even more worrying is that sources and contacts may have been compromised, that these are violations not just of your privacy and private life, but of the freedom of the press.

“We are not in the same situation as the journalists in Morocco but are being used like Trojan horses to get at them, so my thoughts are with our colleagues in Morocco.

“That my telephone could be used to help attack these journalists who fight every day makes me very angry.”

Last month when news of the Pegasus project broke, Macron ordered multiple investigations. The French p​rime minister, Jean Castex, said the Élysée had “ordered a series of investigations”, after vowing to “shed all light on the revelations”.​

In Israel last week, authorities inspected NSO’s offices. And on Sunday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported an “emergency” conference had been called for cyber-firms to assess the impact of the revelations on the domestic sector. It is not clear which companies will attend the meeting.

Pegasus is the hacking software – or spyware – that is developed, marketed and licensed to governments around the world by NSO Group. The malware has the capability to infect billions of phones running either iOS or Android operating systems. It enables operators of the spyware to extract messages, photos and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones.

The appearance of a number on the leaked list does not mean it was subject to an attempted or successful hack.

Human rights activists, journalists and lawyers around the world have been selected as possible candidates for potential invasive surveillance by authoritarian governments using the hacking software, according to the investigation into the massive data leak.

The investigation suggests widespread and continuing abuse of Pegasus, quale NSO insists is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists.

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