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France and Israel hold ‘secret’ talks to defuse phone spyware row

The Guardian logo The Guardian 22/10/2021 Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington
Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

A top adviser to the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has met with his Israeli counterpart to discuss the alleged targeting of French ministers by a client of NSO Group, the Israeli spyware maker.

A row over the alleged surveillance has been described as a “major diplomatic headache” for the government of Naftali Bennett, the prime minister of Israel.

The “secret” meetings at the Élysée Palace were first reported by the news website Axios and then confirmed by the Guardian’s partners in the Pegasus Project, a consortium of media outlets that have investigated NSO.

The meeting between Emmanuel Bonne, a senior diplomatic adviser to Macron, and Eyal Hulata, Israel’s national security adviser, was reportedly aimed at ending the “crisis” that has engulfed the two countries’ relationship since the summer. In July, it was reported that the phone numbers of some French cabinet members, as well as Macron himself, appeared on a leaked database of mobile phone numbers which included some selected as possible targets for surveillance by government clients of NSO.

Traces of NSO Group spyware, called Pegasus, was found on the phones of five French cabinet ministers. © Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images Traces of NSO Group spyware, called Pegasus, was found on the phones of five French cabinet ministers.

The Israeli company is closely regulated by Israel’s ministry of defence, which vets the export of licences to NSO’s government clients.

Related: Spyware ‘found on phones of five French cabinet members’

Traces of NSO’s spyware, called Pegasus, were found on the mobile phones of at least five serving French cabinet ministers, the investigative website Mediapart recently reported, citing multiple anonymous sources and a confidential intelligence dossier. The discovery was made weeks after the Guardian and other outlets published details of the leaked list.

There is no firm 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, which can intercept phone conversations, text messages, emails and photographs. It can also turn a mobile phone into a listening device by remotely controlling a phone’s recorder.

NSO has said that its powerful spyware is meant to be used to investigate serious crime, and not to target members of civil society. It has said that it has no connection to the leaked database that was investigated by the Pegasus Project and that the tens of thousands of numbers contained in the list are not the targets of NSO’s government clients. It has also staunchly denied that Macron was ever targeted by Pegasus spyware.

Commenting on the Israeli-French talks, a spokesperson for NSO said: “It is not for NSO to comment on the existence or content of diplomatic meetings. However, regarding the allegations of the Pegasus Project, we stand by our previous statements: the so-called list is not a list of Pegasus targets, hence the French government officials mentioned are not and never have been Pegasus targets.”

Axios reported that the “crisis” between the two countries led to a “partial freeze” on diplomatic, security, and intelligence cooperation between Israel and France and the suspension of high-level bilateral visits. Hulata reportedly briefed Bonne on the status of an Israeli investigation into Pegasus and proposed a commitment to ban its clients from being able to penetrate French mobile numbers. US, UK, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand-based numbers are also reportedly off limits to NSO clients.

The diplomatic tensions underscore the serious nature of the allegations exposed in the Pegasus Project. Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit, and Amnesty International led the journalistic collaboration.

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