An official for Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO Group said on Wednesday that the company’s controversial Pegasus spyware tool was not used to attack French President Emmanuel Macron.
The comments came as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged Israel to suspend exports of spy technology after heads of state — including Macron — and dozens of journalists and human rights activists listed a list of alleged targets selected for possible surveillance.
We can “come out specifically and say with certainty that the president of France, Macron, was not a target,” Chaim Gelfand, chief compliance officer at NSO Group, told the i24 News television network.
But he also alluded to “some cases that have been brought up that we’re not too comfortable with,” noting that in such circumstances, the company “usually approaches the customer and has a really long discussion… to try to understand his legitimate reasons, if any, for using the system.”
Gelfand’s comments were aired the same day RSF head Christophe Deloire called on Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett “to impose an immediate moratorium on the export of surveillance technology, until a protective regulatory framework is in place”.
Deloire’s call came after a list of some 50,000 phone numbers believed to have been dialed by customers of the NSO Group was leaked. The figures would include those of Macron and 13 other heads of state.
Pegasus can hack into mobile phones without a user’s knowledge, allowing customers to read every message, track a user’s location, and use the phone’s camera and microphone.
Contracts with 45 countries
NSO has contracts with 45 countries and says the Israeli Defense Ministry must approve its deals. The company does not identify its customers.
However, human rights group Amnesty International and Paris-based organization Forbidden Stories that obtained the list said NSO’s government clients are Bahrain, India, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia.
Reports from media outlets including The Guardian, Le Monde and The Washington Post revealed that nearly 200 journalists from organizations including AFP were on the list.
“Enabling governments to install spyware that is actually used to monitor hundreds of journalists and their sources around the world is a major democratic problem,” Deloire said.
Spokespersons for Bennett and Defense Secretary Benny Gantz did not respond to questions from AFP on Wednesday.
NSO, a giant of Israeli technology, is based in Herzliya north of Tel Aviv and has 850 employees.
Its CEO Shalev Hulio, 39, denied in an interview with Israeli 103FM radio on Tuesday that his company was involved in mass surveillance.
He said NSO was “unconnected” to the list of thousands of phone numbers.
On Wednesday, Bennett praised Israel’s technological prowess at a cyber conference in Tel Aviv.
“Of every $100 invested in cyber defense worldwide, $41 was invested in Israeli cyber defense companies,” he said.
“We as a government, we as a nation, have to defend ourselves,” Bennett added.
He suggested that global interest in Israeli technology remained robust, saying that “dozens of countries” signed memoranda to obtain Israeli tools to defend against cyber-attacks.
A further statement on Wednesday from NSO claimed the company had been the victim of a “cruel and defamatory campaign,” and that it would no longer respond to media inquiries.
“Any claim that a name in the list is necessarily related to a Pegasus target or Pegasus potential target is false and untrue,” it said.
“NSO is a technology company. We do not operate the system, nor do we have access to our customers’ data, but they are required to provide us with such information as part of our investigation,” the company added.
On Tuesday, Gantz said Israel only approves the export of technology to governments “for the sole purpose of preventing and investigating crime and terrorism.”
He said Israel is “studying” recent publications on the subject.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NewsMadura staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)