Saudi Arabia denies Pegasus spyware allegations

France calls national security meeting to discuss spyware: Merkel wants more restrictions: Israel to review Pegasus-maker NSO

By: AFP      Published: 05:08 PM, 22 Jul, 2021
Saudi Arabia denies Pegasus spyware allegations
Representational image.

Saudi Arabia has dismissed as "baseless" allegations it used Israeli-supplied Pegasus malware to spy on journalists and human rights activists.

"A Saudi official denied the recent allegations reported in media outlets that an entity in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia used software to monitor phone calls," the official SPA news agency reported late Wednesday.

"The source added that such allegations are untrue, and that KSA's policies do not condone such practices."

Saudi Arabia was one of a number of governments around the world accused of using Pegasus spyware to monitor the activities of dissidents and other critics, following an investigation by a consortium of media companies, including the Washington Post, the Guardian and France's Le Monde.

Israel's NSO Group and its Pegasus malware -- capable of switching on a phone's camera or microphone and harvesting its data -- have been in the headlines since 2016, when researchers accused it of helping spy on a dissident in the United Arab Emirates.

A giant of Israeli tech with 850 employees, NSO insists its software is only intended for use in fighting terrorism and other crimes, and that any other use is the work of "rogue" operators.

Those claims are rubbished by human rights group Amnesty International.

"NSO's spyware is a weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent, placing countless lives in peril," Amnesty chief Agnes Callamard said in a statement.

The UAE normalised its relations with Israel in a US-brokered deal last year, but regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia still has no formal ties with the Jewish state.

Macron calls national security meeting

French President Emmanuel Macron has called an urgent national security meeting for Thursday to discuss the Israeli-made Pegasus spyware after reports about its use in France emerged this week, a government spokesman said. 

"The president is following this subject closely and takes it very seriously," Gabriel Attal told France Inter radio, adding that the unscheduled national security meeting would be "dedicated to the Pegasus issue and the question of cybersecurity".

A consortium of media companies, including the Washington Post, the Guardian and France's Le Monde, reported on Tuesday that one of Macron's phone numbers and those of many cabinet ministers were on a leaked list of potential Pegasus targets.

The newspapers said they had been unable to confirm whether an attempted or successful hacking had taken place without forensically analysing the president's phone. 

Evidence of an attempted hacking was found on the device of former environment minister and close Macron ally Francois de Rugy, with the attempt allegedly originating in Morocco.

De Rugy demanded on Tuesday that Morocco provide "explanations to France, to the French government and individuals like me, who was a member of the French government when there was an attempt to hack and access the data on my mobile phone."

The NSO Group has denied that Macron was among the targets of its clients.

We can "specifically come out and say for sure that the president of France, Macron, was not a target", Chaim Gelfand, chief compliance officer at NSO Group, told Israeli television network i24 on Wednesday.

A source close to Macron played down the risk to him, saying Wednesday that the 43-year-old leader had several phones which were "regularly changed, updated and secured". 

Speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, the source said that his security settings were "the tightest possible".

Other revelations this week have alleged that close French ally Morocco, also targeted several high-profile journalists in France.

Prosecutors in Paris have opened a probe following complaints from investigative website Mediapart and the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaine. 

Morocco has denied the claims, saying it "never acquired computer software to infiltrate communication devices".

The joint media investigation into Pegasus identified at least 180 journalists in 20 countries who were selected for potential targeting between 2016 to June 2021.

Pegasus can hack into mobile phones without a user knowing, enabling clients to read every message, track a user's location and tap into the phone's camera and microphone.

Merkel calls for more restrictions

German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged tighter international controls on the trade in spyware Thursday following reports that several governments used Israeli phone malware to spy on activists, journalists and others.

Asked about the reports of widespread use of the Pegasus software, Merkel said it was "important" that "software configured in this way should not land in the wrong hands".

A collaborative investigation by The Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde and other media outlets revealed potentially far more extensive spying than previously thought using the malware from Israel's NSO Group, capable of switching on a phone's camera or microphone and harvesting its data.

Merkel called for "very restrictive conditions" on the trade in such spyware in countries in which surveillance operations are not tightly regulated, for example by independent courts.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said Monday the revelations "confirm the urgent need to better regulate the sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology and ensure strict oversight and authorisation". 

Israel appoints commission to review Pegasus-maker NSO

Israel has established a commission to review allegations that NSO Group's controversial Pegasus phone surveillance software was misused, the head of parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee said Thursday.

"The defence establishment appointed a review commission made up of a number of groups," lawmaker Ram Ben Barak told Army Radio.

"When they finish their review, we'll demand to see the results and assess whether we need to make corrections," the former deputy head of Israel's Mossad spy agency added.

Pegasus has been implicated in possible mass surveillance of journalists, human rights defenders and 14 heads of state.

Their phone numbers were among some 50,000 potential surveillance targets on a list leaked to rights group Amnesty International and Paris-based Forbidden Stories.

NSO has said the leak is "not a list of targets or potential targets of Pegasus."

NSO chief executive Shalev Hulio told Army Radio Thursday that he would "be very pleased if there were an investigation, so that we'd be able to clear our name".

He also alleged there was an effort "to smear all the Israeli cyber industry". 

NSO has said it exports to 45 countries, with approval from the Israeli government.

Hulio said the company could not disclose the details of its contracts due to "issues of confidentiality," but said he would offer full transparency to any government seeking more details.

"Let any state entity come along -- any official from any state -- and I'll be prepared to open everything up to them, for them to enter, to dig around from top to bottom," he said.

Ben Barak said Israel's priority was "to review this whole matter of giving licences." 

Pegasus had "exposed many terror cells", he said, but "if it was misused or sold to irresponsible bodies, this is something we need to check."

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday called for a moratorium on cyber surveillance software.

Pegasus can hack into mobile phones without a user knowing, enabling clients to read every message, track a user's location and tap into the phone's camera and microphone.