Ramaphosa among leaders targeted in Pegasus spyware case, says report

Leaked database at the heart of the Pegasus project includes mobile phone numbers of 14 leaders

The leaked database at the heart of the Pegasus project includes the mobile phone numbers of 14 heads of state and heads of government, including President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The leaked database at the heart of the Pegasus project includes the mobile phone numbers of 14 heads of state and heads of government, including President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Image: Picture: REUTERS/ROGAN WARD

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s mobile phone number was on a list of targets for potential surveillance in the Pegasus spyware case.

The UK’s Guardian newspaper reported on Tuesday night that the leaked database at the heart of the Pegasus project includes the mobile phone numbers of 14 heads of state and heads of government, including Ramaphosa, French President Emmanuel Macron and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.

It said Ramaphosa appeared to have been selected by Rwanda in 2019.

Macron was on a list of targets for potential surveillance on behalf of Morocco, Le Monde newspaper reported.

The Guardian reported: “The appearance of a number on the leaked list — which includes numbers selected by governments that are clients of NSO Group, the Israeli spyware firm — does not mean it was subject to an attempted or successful hack.”

NSO insists the database has “no relevance” to the company.

The French presidency said if the revelations about Macron’s phone were true, they would be very serious. The authorities would investigate them to shed all necessary light on the reports, it said.

Le Monde said according to sources, one of Macron’s phone numbers, which he had used regularly since 2017, is on the list of numbers selected by Morocco’s intelligence service for potential cyberspying.

Morocco issued a statement on Monday denying any involvement in using Pegasus and rejecting what it called “unfounded and false allegations”.

Moroccan officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the report about Macron on Tuesday.

An investigation published on Sunday by 17 media organisations, led by the Paris-based non-profit journalism group Forbidden Stories, said the spyware made and licensed by NSO  had been used in attempted and successful hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials and human rights activists on a global scale.

NSO issued a statement on Sunday rejecting the reporting by the media partners, saying it was “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories”.

Its product is intended only for use by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime, it said.

An NSO spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request by Reuters for comment on Tuesday on the reports in Le Monde and other French media about Macron.

Le Monde stressed it did not have access to Macron’s phone and therefore could not verify if it was spied upon, but it could verify other phones, including that of former environment minister Francois de Rugy, and was able to verify the latter was spied on.

The Guardian, one of the media outlets involved in the investigation, said the probe suggested “widespread and continuing abuse” of NSO’s hacking software. It described it as malware that infects smartphones to enable the extraction of messages, photos and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones.

NSO Group founder Shalev Hulio told Tel Aviv radio station 103FM on Tuesday that the published list of alleged Pegasus targets “is not linked to NSO”.

“The platform we produce prevents terrorist attacks and saves lives,” he said.

Hulio said that during its 11-year existence, NSO has worked with 45 countries and turned down almost 90 countries. He declined to name any of them.

“I think, ultimately, this will end up in the courts, with a legal ruling in our favour after we file defamation suits because we won’t have any other choice,” he said.

Reuters, edited by BusinessLIVE 


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