New evidence uncovered by the Pegasus Project reveals that South African president Cyril Ramaphosa is one of 14 heads of state selected as people of interest by clients of spyware company NSO Group.

The Pegasus Project, investigating the leak of 50 000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets, has uncovered evidence that NSO Group’s spyware has been used to spy on journalists and world leaders.

The Pegasus Project is a collaboration by more than 80 journalists from 17 media organisations in 10 countries co-ordinated by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media non-profit, with the technical support of Amnesty International, which conducted forensic tests on mobile phones to identify traces of the spyware.

Washington Post, part of the consortium, has revealed that the phone numbers for 14 heads of state were included in the list as people of interest. It includes the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Iraq’s Barham Salih, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, Egypt’s Mostafa Madbouly, Pakistan’s Imran Khan, Morocco’s Saad-Eddine El Ohtmani, Lebanon’s Saad Hariri, Uganda’s Ruhakana Rugunda, and Belgium’s Charles Michel. The list contained phone numbers for more than 600 government officials and politicians from 34 countries.

Amnesty International was unable to conduct forensic analysis on the phones of world leaders to confirm whether they were targeted or if spyware was successfully installed.

Agnes Callamard , secretary-general of Amnesty International, says: “The unprecedented revelation that the phones of at least fourteen heads of state may have been hacked using NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware should send a chill down the spine of world leaders.

“The damning revelations of the Pegasus Project underscore the urgent need for strong regulation to reign in a wild west surveillance industry. States must implement a global moratorium on the export, sale, transfer and use of surveillance equipment until a robust human rights-compliant regulatory framework is in place.”

NSO has denied that Macron and Mohammed VI ever appeared on a target list for clients. The company insists that its spyware is only intended for use against terrorists and serious criminals and has reiterated that it will “investigate all credible claims of misuse” and “take strong action” where such allegations prove correct.