French Government Ministers Bugged

The mobile phones of at least five French ministers and a diplomatic advisor to President Emmanuel Macron have been found to infected by the Israeli-made Pegasus spyware. The five ministers targeted are Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, Territorial Cohesion Minister Jacqueline Gourault, Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie, Housing Minister Emmanuelle Wargon and Overseas Territories Minister Sebastien Lecornu, Mediapart said.

This comes two months after it was revealed that the phone numbers of Macron, other government ministers and top French officials appeared in a leaked database being invesigated  by  journalists at Mediapart.

There is no evidence that the phones of the five cabinet members were successfully hacked, but the Mediapart allegations indicate that the devices were targeted with the powerful spyware known as Pegasus, which is made by NSO Group. The Israeli company is now at the center of an international spying scandal with suspicions that the Israeli government may also play a role.

Pegasus can switch on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvest its data, and was at the center of a storm in July after a list of about 50,000 potential surveillance targets worldwide including Heads of State became known. 

The NSO Group claims it has no connection to the leaked database and that the tens of thousands of numbers contained in the list are not the targets of NSO’s customers, which includes numerous governments around the world. It has also denied that Macron was ever targeted by Pegasus spyware and in a statement NSO Group said: “We stand by our previous statements regarding French government officials. They are not and have never been Pegasus targets. We won’t comment on anonymous source allegations.”

Although NSO Group say that the purpose of this powerful spyware is to investigate serious crime, not to target members of civil society, the Mediapart investigation has revealed that global clients of NSO Group have used their syware to hack human rights activists, journalists and lawyers. Forensic analysis of their devices at the end of July had revealed the presence of “suspect traces” of the spyware, according to a report by French state intelligence services.  

The alleged victims have not responded for requests to comment and some of them are understood  to have referred Mediapart investigators to France’s Secretariat-General for defence and national security (SGDSN), which also declined comment. The Élysée Palace also said it would not comment on “long and complex investigations which are still ongoing”.

In July, Le Monde newspaper reported that evidence of an attempted hacking was found on the phone of the former French  environment minister Francois de Rugy, with the attempt allegedly originating in Morocco and  Morocco's intelligence services were also accused of being behind the hacking of journalists in France.

The Israeli cybersecurity industry's exports were valued at $6.85 billion in 2020 and includes a number of world leading companies who have access to a trained talent pool from the nation's secretive military' intelligence units who are adept at transfering their know-how to the private sector.

France 24:      Mediapart:           TimesofIsrael:       Guardian:       TimesofIndia:     NPR:   Sada ElBalad

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