The Paris prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation into an alarming new spyware known as Pegasus. Activists, journalists, politicians, and business executives from around the world are all suspected of having been targeted by the military-grade malware from the Israel-based NSO Group.
Amnesty International attests that French Emmanuel Macron is one of 14 current or former heads of state who may have been targeted for hacking. A leaked database contains a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers thought to be persons of interest for NSO’s multiple government clients since 2016.
Macron’s office said authorities would investigate the allegations and that, if the targeting of the president is proven to be true, the consequences would be “extremely grave.”
“The unprecedented revelation…should send a chill down the spine of world leaders,” warned Agnès Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary general, “these revelations blow apart any claims by NSO that such attacks are rare and down to rogue use of their technology.”
“It’s clear their technology facilitates systemic abuse. They paint a picture of legitimacy, while profiting from widespread human rights violations,” she continued.
According to reports, Pegasus is a highly invasive tool used to spy on people through their smartphones. It works by sending an “exploit link” to the target user which, if clicked, downloads malware or code onto the device without the user’s knowledge or permission.
Once the malware is installed, hackers have unfettered access to the target’s phone, including private data such as passwords, text messages, and contact lists. According to some reports, the malware can be installed without the target clicking the “exploit link.”
Amnesty International was unable to conduct forensic analysis on the phones of world leaders to confirm whether they were targeted or if the spyware was successfully installed.
NSO has claimed its product was only sold to vetted government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime. The group denied it ever maintained “a list of potential, past or existing targets”. It slammed the report as “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories.”
In a statement responding to the accusations, NSO said it will continue to investigate claims of misuse and cancel access to any client who misuses it.
“We can confirm that at least three names in your inquiry, Emmanuel Macron, King Mohammed VI and [WHO Director General] Tedros Ghebreyesus – are not, and never have been, targets…of NSO group customers,” the firm assured.
The company has threatened to file a defamation lawsuit against at least one media outlet.
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