New Delhi: Hidden in a leaked database of thousands of numbers, some targeted by military-grade spyware, is a phone number used by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Also on the list, highlighted by the Pegasus project, are the number of 14 French ministers – including Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire – and Charles Michel, then Belgian Prime Minister .
The presence of Macron’s number on the leaked list does not automatically mean that the agency that placed him attempted to deliver Pegasus or managed to infect his phone, but raised concerns about the danger posed by cross-border use. spyware.
“If the facts are true, they are clearly very serious. All light will be shed on these media revelations, ”Macron’s office said in a brief statement to The world. “Some French victims have already announced that they will file a complaint, and judicial inquiries will therefore be launched.”
The Israeli company, NSO Group, claimed the database was “of no relevance” to the company. On Tuesday evening, in a letter to the Pegasus Project, he also said Macron was not a “target” of any of his clients and had “never been a target” either.
“All the French and Belgian government officials or diplomats mentioned in the list are not and have never been targets of Pegasus,” he added.
However, the majority of the numbers on the leaked list are clustered in countries that experts have identified in the past as having had an active Pegasus operations operator. Consortium media partners also have reason to believe that the list includes a number of individuals of interest to NSO Group clients.
Pegasus is military grade spyware, which is barely detectable once it infects a phone. It can allow an operator to remotely take control of a mobile phone and extract any device on the device, from emails to photos, documents and call recordings.
In 2018, the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto identified Morocco as one of five possible government operators of Pegasus in Africa. He had reported that a “separate operator who appears to be focusing on Morocco could also spy on targets in other countries, including Algeria, France and Tunisia”.
On Tuesday, French prosecutors announced that they had opened an investigation into the Moroccan secret service’s use of Pegasus spyware against French journalists. Moroccan authorities have denied all the allegations.
But, it is possible that the Moroccan government has taken its eye even higher. Macron’s number is among a long list of Moroccan numbers, indicating that the government agency which had an interest in thousands of Moroccans also viewed the French president as a person of special interest.
On Tuesday, Morocco expressed its “great astonishment” at the publication of “erroneous allegations (…) according to which Morocco had infiltrated the telephones of several national and foreign public figures and officials of international organizations”.
“Morocco is a state of law, which guarantees the secrecy of personal communications by the force of the constitution,” said the statement.
Media partners of the Pegasus Project have learned that Macron has been using the number identified in the leaked data since at least 2017 and until recently.
In the French system, the head of state must be able to receive and send secret defense information “anywhere and at any time”, which means that those around him always travel with highly secure portable means of communication at different times. .
According to information available from the media partners of the Pegasus Project, Macron also has another secure phone, a Samsung model, whose security had been enhanced with a chip manufactured by the French company Ercom. It can only share encrypted calls and messages with another device that is also equipped, otherwise it works as a standard mobile phone.
Macron’s selection as a person of interest took place just before his departure for a trip to Africa, where he stopped over in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya.
According to the leaked database, the numbers of two other key French officials in Macron’s entourage were also selected, his adviser on African issues, Frank Paris and Alexandre Bennalle, his deputy chief of staff at the time who was in charge of its security.
The French president was also visiting the region at a time when the North African region, which was under colonial rule by France, was in turmoil due to instability in Algeria, Morocco’s neighbor.
Longtime Algerian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika then announced he would not stand for election – and there had been intense speculation about the country’s future.
France being a colonial ruler, Morocco might have expected to obtain information on its neighbors from the French governments and their officials knowledgeable about the situation in Algiers.
We learn that the French ambassador to Algeria, Xavier Driencourt, had received a notification in October 2019 by WhatsApp according to which the security of his phone could be violated in May of the same year.
Macron could also be the target of two other diplomatic events – a G5 Sahel meeting and an African Union summit.
The French president was stopping over in Ethiopia, the seat of the African Union and the center of African multilateral diplomacy. African countries were also in the process of ratifying a free trade agreement, which could also have been the target of Morocco’s external intelligence gathering.
Meanwhile, Charles Michel was Belgian Prime Minister when he was selected as a target for potential surveillance by a Moroccan spyware operator, but there were already talk of him becoming the next President of the European Council.
In a statement to the Belgian partner of Pegasus Project The Evening, he said, “We were aware of the threats and the measures that have been taken to limit the risks.”
According to sources, there had been suspicion of attempts made on Michel’s phone around the time there was a buzz about his next move. The Belgian Prime Minister also had a secure phone for sensitive conversations.
The Moroccan security services had also listed the number of Charles Michel’s father, Louis Michel, who is also a former Belgian foreign minister. At the start of 2019, Louis Michel was a member of the European Parliament and co-president of the EU-ACP Parliamentary Assembly, which allowed him to maintain close contacts with African leaders.
“I am both surprised and disturbed by this information. I could never have imagined that new technologies could be so intrusive and extremely dangerous for the normal functioning of democracy. I’m happy to have been made aware of this attempt to intrude into my political work, which consists of trying to resolve conflicts, ”Louis Michel told the Pegasus Project when he was informed of his inclusion in the base. of data disclosed.