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Pegasus in France: Macron holds special cabinet meeting on spyware case

Move comes as German chancellor says nations without judicial oversight of how spying software is used should not have it
An official at NSO Group said on Wednesday that the Pegasus spyware tool was not used to target French President Macron (AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron held a special cabinet meeting on Thursday morning to discuss investigations into the Pegasus spyware case, government spokesperson Gabriel Attal said.

Attal said progress was being made in the investigations after Amnesty International and a group of international media organisations said spyware made and licensed by Israel's NSO Group was used in hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials and human rights activists.

Macron met with Prime Minister Jean Castex and other officials at the Elysee Palace to discuss the issue.

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French daily Le Monde has reported that Macron's phone was on a list of potential targets for surveillance on behalf of Morocco in the spyware case.

Castex said Macron had called for a series of investigations into the case.

"The president is monitoring the case very closely", Attal said.

An official at NSO Group said on Wednesday that the Pegasus spyware tool was not used to target Macron.

We can "specifically come out and say for sure that the president of France, Macron, was not a target," Chaim Gelfand, chief compliance officer at NSO Group, told the i24 News television network.

However, Gelfand also alluded to "some cases brought up that we are not so comfortable with".

Merkel remarks

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday it was important that hacking software does not get into the wrong hands, when asked about the Pegasus spyware case.

She also told reporters that countries without any judicial oversight of how spying software is used should not have it.

Prosecutors in France said on Tuesday that they had opened a probe into allegations that Morocco’s intelligence services had also used Pegasus to spy on several French journalists.

The investigation will examine 10 different charges, including whether there was a breach of personal privacy, fraudulent access to personal electronic devices and criminal association.

Morocco has denied buying or using the Pegasus spyware.

NSO has rejected the reporting by the media partners as "full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories".

'Something that needs checking'

Israel's parliamentary review panel may recommend changes to defence export policy over the allegations that the NSO spyware has been abused in several countries, a senior lawmaker said on Thursday.

On Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders had urged Israel to suspend exports of the spying technology.

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"We certainly have to look anew at this whole subject of licences granted by DECA," Ram Ben-Barak, head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, told Israel's Army Radio, referring to the government-run Defence Export Controls Agency.

Israel has appointed an inter-ministerial team to assess the reports which "will conduct its checks, and we will be sure to look into the findings and see if we need to fix things here," said Ben-Barak, a former deputy chief of the national intelligence agency Mossad.

"Truth be told, this system (Pegasus) has uncovered a lot of terrorist cells and criminal families and helped a great many people. 

"If it has been used wrongly, or if it was sold to irresponsible parties, that is something that needs checking."

NSO says it does not know the specific identities of people against whom clients use Pegasus, but that if it receives complaints it can acquire the target lists and unilaterally shut down the software for any clients found to have abused it.

Hungarian journalist

After Army Radio also aired an interview on Thursday with Szabolcs Panyi, a Hungarian journalist who said Pegasus had been found on his cellphone, NSO chief Shalev Hulio vowed to investigate.

"If he was indeed a target, I can assure you already that we will cut off the systems of whoever took action against him, because it's intolerable for someone to do something like this," Hulio told the station.

The company has shut down five Pegasus systems for abuse, Hulio said, adding that the software cannot be used against Israeli or US mobile phones.

Asked on Thursday whether the Hungarian government had purchased Pegasus, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff Gergely Gulyas said details concerning secret intelligence gathering were "not public information". 

He added that all such intelligence gathering was conducted lawfully, Reuters reported.