An official at Israeli cyber security company NSO Group said on Wednesday that the firm’s controversial Pegasus spyware tool was not used to target French President Emmanuel Macron.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged Israel to suspend exports of spy technology after heads of state, including Macron, included scores of journalists and rights activists on a list of alleged targets selected for potential surveillance.
“We can come up specifically and say with certainty that French President Macron was not a target,” Chaim Gelfand, chief compliance officer of the NSO Group, told the i24 news television network.
But he also noted that “there have been some cases in which we are not so comfortable”, noting that in such circumstances the firm “usually contacts the client and has a full lengthy discussion … to try to understand for what were his valid reasons, if any, for using the system.”
Gelfand’s comments were broadcast on the same day that RSF chief Christophe Deloire called on Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to “immediately suspend surveillance technology exports until a protective regulatory framework is established”.
Deloire’s call came after a list of 50,000 phone numbers selected by NSO Group customers was leaked. The number reportedly included Macron and 13 other heads of state.
Pegasus can hack into a mobile phone without a user knowing, allowing customers to read every message, track a user’s location, and tap into the phone’s camera and microphone.
contracts with 45 countries
NSO has contracts with 45 countries, and says Israel’s Defense Ministry should approve its deals. The company does not identify its customers.
However, rights group Amnesty International and Paris-based organization Forbidden Stories, which obtained the list, said NSO’s government clients include Bahrain, India, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia.
Reporting by media outlets including The Guardian, Le Monde and The Washington Post found that around 200 journalists from organizations including AFP were on the list.
“Enabling governments to install the spyware used to monitor hundreds of journalists and their sources around the world is a huge democratic problem,” Deloire said.
Bennett’s spokesman and Defense Minister Benny Gantz did not respond to AFP’s questions on Wednesday.
NSO, an Israeli technology giant, is based in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, and has 850 employees.
Its CEO Shalev Hulio, 39, denied in an interview with Israel’s 103FM Radio on Tuesday that his company was engaged in mass surveillance.
He said that NSO has nothing to do with the list of thousands of phone numbers.
On Wednesday, Bennett referred to Israel’s technical prowess at a cyber conference in Tel Aviv.
“Out of every $100 invested in cyber defense worldwide, $41 was invested in Israeli cyber defense firms,” he said.
“We have to defend ourselves as a government, we as a nation,” Bennett said.
He suggested that global interest in Israeli technology remains strong, with “dozens of countries” signing memoranda to obtain Israeli equipment that defends against cyberattacks.
Another statement by NSO on Wednesday claimed that the firm was the victim of a “vicious and defamatory campaign”, and that it would no longer respond to media queries.
“Any claim that a name on the list necessarily relates to a Pegasus target or a Pegasus potential target is false and incorrect,” it said.
“NSO is a technology company. We do not operate the system, nor do we have access to the data of our customers, yet they are obliged to provide us with such information under investigation,” the company said.
On Tuesday, Gantz said Israel only allows governments to export the technology “specifically for the purposes of preventing and investigating crime and terrorism.”
He added that Israel is “studying” recent publications on the subject.
(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)