French prosecutor opens probe into Pegasus spyware allegations

Investigation follows complaint by French news website Mediapart over alleged use of spyware by Moroccan secret services.

Mediapart has claimed that Morocco's secret services used Pegasus to infiltrate the mobile phones of its founder Edwy Plenel, pictured, and one of its journalists [File: Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

The Paris prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation into allegations that Moroccan intelligence services spied on several French journalists using the Pegasus software at the heart of a global scandal.

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

It was launched after an investigation published on Sunday by 17 media organisations, led by the Paris-based non-profit journalism group Forbidden Stories, said the Pegasus spyware made and licensed by the Israeli company, NSO, had been used in attempted and successful hacks of 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials and human rights activists.

French investigative news website Mediapart filed a legal complaint on Monday in the wake of the spying claims.

The organisation said in a series of tweets that Morocco’s secret services had used Pegasus to infiltrate the mobile phones of its founder Edwy Plenel and one of its journalists.

“The only way to get to the bottom of this is for judicial authorities to carry out an independent investigation on widespread spying organised in France by Morocco,” Mediapart said in one of its tweets.

Morocco denies spying claims

Morocco published an official statement rejecting what it called “unfounded and false allegations”.

The country’s government said it had “never acquired computer software to infiltrate communication devices”.

But other journalists working for French media companies were also allegedly targeted by Moroccan security services, including employees of national newspaper Le Monde and the AFP news agency.

The Paris prosecutor’s statement did not directly mention Morocco but said it had decided to open the probe after receiving the complaint by Mediapart.

The Guardian, one of the media outlets involved in the investigation, said it suggested “widespread and continuing abuse” of NSO’s hacking software.

NSO said its product was intended only for use by vetted government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight “terrorism” and other serious crimes.

It issued a statement denying the reporting by Forbidden Stories and its partners.

European politicians and media groups have, meanwhile, voiced outrage over the reports.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the spying, if confirmed, was “completely unacceptable”, while French government spokesman Gabriel Attal called it “extremely shocking”.

Swath of targets

Pegasus is a form of malware that infects smartphones to enable the extraction of messages, photos and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones.

The new investigation into its use, headed by Forbidden Stories in collaboration with Amnesty International, was based on leaked data of unspecified origins.

The pair said the data they obtained indicated a swath of potential targets for surveillance by “authoritarian governments” who are among NSO’s clients.

Journalists from the consortium of media outlets approached by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International and given access to the data combed through a list of more than 50,000 telephone numbers, identifying more than 1,000 individuals in 50 countries.

They include 189 journalists, 85 human rights activists and several heads of state. Among them were journalists and politicians in France.

Amnesty was able to examine the smartphones of 67 people on the list, and found attempted or successful Pegasus infections on 37.

It found that the phone of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, was infected just four days after he was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Amnesty also found Pegasus on the phones of the co-founders of the Indian independent online outlet The Wire and repeat infections on the phones of two Hungarian investigative journalists with the outlet Direkt36.

The list of potential targets included Roula Khalaf, the editor of the Financial Times.

Source: News Agencies