Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, French President Emmanuel Macron and his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa are on a list of 14 world leaders potentially targeted for surveillance using the Pegasus hacking software, reported The Guardian.
The Pegasus spyware is developed, marketed and licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group. The company says that it licenses its software only to “vetted governments” and that Pegasus is meant to be targeted at criminals.
But a leaked list, featuring more than 50,000 phone numbers “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens”, was accessed by Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, which shared it with 17 news organisations as part of the Pegasus Project.
Khan was chosen as a “person of interest by India in 2019”, The Guardian reported. Macron appeared to have been chosen as a potential target for surveillance by Morocco in 2019. Ramaphosa was reportedly chosen by Rwanda in the same year.
King Mohammed VI of Morocco, a target of surveillance in 2019, was reportedly chosen by the security forces of his own country.
Apart from heads of governments, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also featured on the list of potential targets. He was also reportedly chosen by Morocco in 2019.
Media organisations of The Pegasus Project were unable to examine the phones of the world leaders and therefore could not confirm whether there had been any attempts to install the hacking software, according to The Guardian.
However, the NSO Group that sells Pegasus said that the appearance of a phone number on the leaked list did not mean that the owners were subjected to a successful or attempted hacking, according to the British news website. The Israeli company claimed the database had “no relevance” to it.
The company added that Macron was not a “target” for its customers, thus denying that the French president was chosen for surveillance. A spokesperson of the NSO Group added that Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and the WHO chief were “not, and never have been, targets or selected as targets of NSO Group customers”, reported The Guardian.
The Israeli company’s counsel said that it defined targets as individuals chosen for surveillance using the Pegasus spyware, “regardless of whether an attempt to infect” the device is successful.
On Monday, the Israeli company said that claims made in the reports by the sources were done on the basis of “misleading interpretation of data from accessible and overt basic information”. It added that this had no bearing on the list of the customers’ targets of Pegasus or any other NSO products.
The Moroccan and Rwandan governments have denied spying on any foreign country’s leader.
In India, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Union ministers Ashwini Vaishnaw, Prahlad Singh Patel, and virologist Gagandeep Kang were among the names revealed as potential targets of surveillance using the Pegasus hacking software.
According to the Wire, which focused on the Indian portion of the leaked list, “the numbers of those in the database include over 40 journalists, three major opposition figures, one constitutional authority, two serving ministers in the Narendra Modi government, current and former heads and officials of security organisations and scores of businesspersons”.