Israel is taking seriously allegations that spyware developed by an Israeli company was used against public figures including French President Emmanuel Macron, Israel’s defence minister told his French counterpart during a visit to Paris on Wednesday.
Israeli defence chief Benny Gantz met French Defence Minister Florence Parly in part to share initial findings from an Israeli government assessment of exports to France by NSO Group, which sells the Pegasus spyware.
A French government spokesman said Parly would “seize the opportunity” to ask Gantz what his government knows about NSO’s activities, which have emerged as a diplomatic liability for Israel.
At Parly’s request, Gantz “commented on the issue of NSO and told her that Israel is taking the allegations seriously”, a statement from his office said.
“Israel grants cyber licences only to nation-states and only to be used for the needs of dealing with terrorism and crime,” the statement said.
An investigation published by 17 media organisations, led by the Paris-based non-profit journalism group Forbidden Stories, said the spyware had been used in attempted and successful hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials and human rights activists.
Macron’s phone was on a list of potential targets for surveillance by Morocco, which used the Pegasus software, French newspaper Le Monde reported. Macron has called for an investigation.
Israel has set up a senior inter-ministerial team to look into the spyware allegations.
Gantz told Parly that “representatives studying the issue came to NSO today, and that Israel is looking into the issue with the utmost seriousness”.
NSO has said the report about Pegasus was “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories”. Pegasus is intended for use only by government intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime, the company has said.
NSO says it does not know the specific identities of people against whom clients use Pegasus, but that if it receives complaints it can acquire the target lists and unilaterally shut down the software for any clients found to have abused it.
An Israeli official said the defence ministry would support such actions by NSO if wrongdoing was determined.