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France to investigate alleged spying attempt by Morocco

France is investigating allegations that Morocco may have targeted mobile phones belonging to President Emmanuel Macron and 15 ministers using a spyware tool made by the Israeli company NSO Group.

French media outlets Le Monde and France Info reported on Tuesday that a number that Macron has used since about 2017 was “on a list selected by the security services of Morocco, which was a customer of [NSO’s] Pegasus software, for potential pirating”.

The revelations were part of an investigation conducted by journalism non-profit Forbidden Stories and 17 media partners that found spying worldwide using the spyware made by NSO had been far more extensive than previously thought.

The investigation was based on a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers linked to people who had allegedly been selected for possible surveillance by NSO’s clients since 2016. Among the targets were activists, lawyers, and journalists in countries including India, Mexico and France.

Laurent Richard, director of Forbidden Stories, said on the LCI news channel that their investigation could not determine whether Macron was actually spied on or if his phone was compromised by the software. But the fact that his number was discovered on the list meant that “Morocco had an interest in doing so”.

The Moroccan government said in a statement that it “has never acquired computer software to infiltrate communication devices” and that “it categorically rejects and condemns these unfounded and false allegations”. 

NSO Group could not immediately be reached in Israel regarding the alleged spying against Macron. But it had earlier said it would “continue to investigate all credible claims of misuse” while denying what it called “false allegations” in the Forbidden Stories report.

The Elysée vowed to investigate. “If these allegations are confirmed, then they are obviously very serious,” said a spokesperson.

Earlier on Tuesday, prosecutors at a criminal court in Paris announced that they would begin investigations into a report published on Monday that several French journalists had allegedly been subject to hacking by Morocco using NSO’s tools.

The investigative website Mediapart, satirical paper Le Canard Enchaîné and advocacy group Reporters Without Borders had submitted complaints to prosecutors asking them to look into the matter.

The investigation will examine 10 different charges including whether there was a criminal conspiracy, whether anyone’s privacy was invaded or whether fraudulent access was gained to individuals’ electronic devices.

When Jean Castex, France’s prime minister, was asked about alleged spying on journalists before parliament on Tuesday, he declined to respond specifically. “We have ordered an investigation and it has not yet been completed, so I cannot comment at this stage to the parliament or the nation,” he said.

Additional reporting by Heba Saleh in Cairo

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