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France’s Mr. Privacy turns cybersnooper

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This story is part of the series Leaked: The Altrnativ world of cybersurveillance. Read the rest.

PARIS — Eric Leandri was once the darling of France’s tech sector, lauded as a defender of digital privacy and a paragon of Europe’s ability to compete against Silicon Valley. 

Qwant — the search engine Leandri co-founded in 2011 — received more than €50 million in French and European public funding and loans. A-list politicians like French President Emmanuel Macron and European Union anti-trust chief Margrethe Vestager endorsed the company over its better-known American competitor Google. 

Today, things couldn’t look more different. Last summer, Qwant came so close to bankruptcy the company was forced to seek an €8 million loan from the Chinese telecom giant Huawei. Leandri, who left his job as head of the company in disgrace in 2020, has switched sides. His new venture, Altrnativ, specializes not in privacy — but in the rapidly growing field of cybersurveillance. 

A trove of internal Altrnativ documents seen by POLITICO reveal how Leandri’s company investigated the critics, rivals and employees of some of France’s biggest brands. They also contain pitch decks branded with Altrnativ’s logo offering the company’s services alongside cyberweapons and drones to authoritarian African governments in apparent cooperation with arms dealers based in Poland and the Middle East. 

This is not just the story of one man’s fall and attempt to regain his status as a standard bearer for France, inc. Leandri’s journey symbolizes Europe’s struggles to create technology champions that can keep up in a landscape dominated by Silicon Valley, Israel and Asia. 

It also opens a window into the murky world of cyberweaponry and cybersurveillance, a rapidly growing industry in which companies like Altrnativ gather personal information online with unprecedented ease and sell that information to governments and companies.   

“Our information is being used against us,” said Estelle Massé, an expert in data protection at the digital rights advocacy group Access Now. “There’s a growing number of actors we don’t know anything about who take very concrete decisions for us and our future: whether or not we can get a job, whether or not we can become the target of retaliation for having said something positive or negative towards a brand.” 

People’s personal information, she said, is being “weaponized.”  

The roughly 4,000 documents include product offers, invoices and minutes from internal meetings. Combined with dozens of interviews conducted by POLITICO, they show how a startup, run by an entrepreneur with close ties to his country’s business and political establishment, was able to secure contracts with some of the most important companies in France. 

In several cases, Altrnativ’s investigations may have breached Europe’s stringent General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) online privacy laws, according to definitions provided to POLITICO by privacy lawyers and the French data protection authority. Asked if Altrnativ broke the GDPR, Leandri did not reply.

In the less than three years since the company was founded, Altrnativ has established itself as a purveyor of open-source intelligence or OSINT, a form of digital investigation which usually involves compiling and analyzing publicly available information. For example, in what Leandri says were trial runs for work with other crisis management and private security companies, Altrnativ monitored social media activities of critics of the luxury group LVMH and the cooking oil giant Lesieur. 

Altrnativ was contracted by the defense firm Dassault Aviation to investigate an employee and two job applicants of North African origins to look for possible “collusion with foreign intelligence,” according to dossiers it produced for the firm. 

Leandri and his company were also hired by submarine manufacturer Naval Group to hunt for sources of a leak from a meeting about a €56 billion deal with the Australian government that would later unravel, sparking an international diplomatic crisis. As part of that job, Altrnativ investigated an Australian journalist, an Australian senator and the CEO of a rival firm in Australia along with dozens of the group’s employees or subcontractors. 

In the public sector, Altrnativ took part in a French interior ministry plan to build tools capable of sifting through huge amounts of data for intelligence the government could act on — a project aimed at replicating the capabilities of Palantir, the software surveillance company founded by the libertarian entrepreneur Peter Thiel with funding from the American CIA

Meeting with POLITICO in a downtown Paris café, Leandri claimed his company was working on “defense secrets.” He also acknowledged he had carried out the open-source intelligence investigations listed above. When it came to Altrnativ’s African ambitions, however, he insisted he was not responsible for every offer that mentioned his company and that he had only participated in work involving open-source intelligence. 

He also maintained his new line of business was consistent with work in the past, especially when it comes to promoting European technology over rivals from the United States, Israel and elsewhere. 

“I continue to defend privacy very strongly,” Leandri said. “That does not stop me from being willing to compete with Palantir and to develop software that can manage huge amounts of data, because I believe that sovereignty of a country, a country like France, is important.”  

Rise and fall 

French company Qwant used to be a poster child for European tech sovereignty | Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images

For years, Qwant was a poster child for European tech sovereignty — hailed as a demonstration of the Continent’s ability to produce home-grown champions rather than depend on foreign brands like Microsoft, Huawei and Google. 

As a French company dedicated to online privacy, the search engine was endorsed by the country’s top politicians, including France’s Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire who declared his admiration during a 2018 visit to the company’s new headquarters in Paris’s chic 16th arrondissement. 

“Qwant, to me, is an answer to all the skeptics, all those who think France, Europe, are not capable of developing digital companies at the same level of what’s done in the U.S. or China,” Le Maire said

Standing at the minister’s side, Leandri allowed himself a smile. Le Maire’s visit was the culmination of a years-long effort to woo the Parisian elite, and here they all were, milling around Qwant’s office, taking selfies in front of the company’s Tesla car. 

A serial entrepreneur who began his career selling computers on the island of Corsica, Leandri had climbed to the top of France’s business world by securing powerful allies in the political and corporate establishment. 

The money behind Qwant came from Jean-Manuel Rozan, a wealthy, well-connected investor, and his powerful network. It was Rozan who approached Macron, when the future president was still an advisor to his predecessor François Hollande. Rozan is a long-time supporter of the French politician, even writing a book about him in 2019. 

According to Rozan, Macron, first as the Elysée’s deputy secretary general and then as economy minister, advocated for Qwant as it sought a €25 million loan from the European Investment Bank in 2016. (Axel Springer, POLITICO’s parent company, was an early investor in Qwant, buying a 20 percent stake in 2014.) 

The narrative fueling Qwant’s rise fit perfectly with Macron’s desire to turn France into a “start-up nation,” and Leandri and Rozan made sure to keep the rising political star close. Leandri was one of Macron’s growing crowd of followers when the young liberal kicked off his presidential bid.  

After Macron won the presidency in May 2017, Qwant hired one of his party’s failed parliamentary candidates who had worked on his campaign. Leandri also cultivated relationships with several MPs from Macron’s party, as well as some of his top officials like Junior Minister for Social Economy Marlène Schiappa. Schiappa did not reply to a request for comment. Macron’s former government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux confirmed to POLITICO that he met with potential business partners in Altrnativ’s office on several occasions after he left the government. 

The Elysée did not reply to a request for comment. 

For a while, it seemed Leandri had nowhere to go but up. A team of lobbyists polished his image, branded him as Europe’s privacy champion and helped open doors to everyone who mattered in Paris and Brussels, including Vestager, then the EU’s top tech-related official. 

At the height of his career in 2019, Leandri oozed so much success he was asked to star in an advertisement for a French luxury car. Filmed at the wheel of a DS SUV, he described his “life’s battle” as “defending the right to private life … defending the right to European values.” 

Then things began to unravel. In 2019, journalists at the French newspaper Le Figaro, including the author of this article, revealed the company was making big losses: €4.7 million in 2016 and €11.2 million in 2018. Company documents later viewed by a journalist also showed how the company relied on technologies from Microsoft’s Bing search engine, in contrast to Qwant’s claims of being a homegrown European digital powerhouse. 

“Leandri is capable of selling a blue carpet as a red one,” said an entrepreneur who has known him for years, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The only problem is that the carpet remains blue.” 

The biggest blow for Leandri came from the French news outlet Mediapart, which revealed the entrepreneur had been the target of a European arrest warrant between 2011 and 2015 after a Belgian court convicted him of “receiving stolen goods.” In 2016, Leandri, who had appealed the decision, paid a fine to settle the matter.  

Other media reports also described brewing tensions inside Qwant and detailed Leandri’s Silicon-Valley-style spending. Employees complained about his habit of renting a Tesla and the French state-owned investment firm Caisse des Dépôts — a Qwant shareholder — questioned the six-figure salaries paid to the company’s executives even as it failed to make a profit. 

Publicly, the French government continued to back Qwant, to the point of requiring its agencies, including the Ministry of Armed Forces, to use the company’s search engine. But Leandri himself was shown the door and left his job as head of the company in January 2020. He still holds roles in companies that own shares in Qwant, according to public corporate registers. 

In July this year, Leandri was also convicted of illegally accessing the private electronic correspondence of his former business partner Rozan — his appeal is pending. In January, a French court also found that Leandri had reneged on a €40,000 loan and ordered him to repay the money.  

After POLITICO contacted Leandri, someone made dozens of attempts to hack into the online accounts of a reporter working on this story.  

Qwant has now racked up more than €80 million in cumulative losses and has more than €47 million in debt, according to a public official involved in the matter and documents seen by POLITICO. It made a loss of more than €9 million in 2021. Qwant did not respond to detailed questions about its operations and balance sheet but said its total revenues in 2021 came to less than €12 million. 

It was not long after his departure from Qwant that Leandri launched Altrnativ, pitching his new venture to former colleagues and tech professionals as France’s answer to Palantir, the American big data analytics company. 

Targets

Leandri’s brand aims “to bring tools that really protect [someone], be it about private life or business confidentiality” | Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images

In its public presentations, Altrnativ is in line with the Leandri brand — promising privacy in an increasingly perilous digital world. “The idea is simply to take back control of surfing on the internet, (…) to bring tools that really protect [someone], be it about private life or business confidentiality,” is how Leandri explained it in a 2020 interview

But while Altrnativ does provide services intended to protect private data, it also offers to obtain personal information for its clients.  

The documents seen by POLITICO include a promotional video that showcases “Targets” — “an investigative platform that can collect, correlate, process and analyze data on a massive scale” including by “searching the dark web.”  

As an example, the video shows somebody looking for information about former French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe. The French politician’s Twitter address is typed into a search engine, which returns his private Instagram and Twitter accounts as well as a fake phone number, address and other private information. The software also purports to provide the phone numbers of some of Philippe’s friends and information about how he is connected to them. 

Two people involved in the private security industry confirmed Altrnativ had pitched them access to a tool that would provide them personal data about high profile figures and ordinary citizens. In a pitch deck prepared for the governments of Comoros, Altrnativ illustrates the tool with photos purporting to show the WhatsApp profile pics and online statuses of ministers in Philippe’s government. 

Asked about the tool, Leandri said the final version only used publicly available data. “It is only an open-source intelligence search,” he said. 

The company has offered its services, including use of the platform, to some of France’s biggest brands. 

In one job, for a crisis management company it sought to partner with, Altrnativ monitored critics of Bernard Arnault, the founder and CEO of the luxury group LVMH. 

In what Leandri told POLITICO was a trial run, the resulting report claimed several activists, including the French left-wing Member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry were placed “under surveillance.” In another trial run, Altrnativ joined a project that monitored union officials, a local politician and potential yellow jacket protestors who were considered a risk to the French cooking oil and mayonnaise manufacturer Lesieur.

Leandri said he did not recognize the language used in the resulting reports, which bore the logos of partner companies. “I have never used this kind of language,” he said. “We do not put anyone under digital surveillance, that’s not us.” 

He referred to these reports as trials primarily handled by other companies. The documents show he worked with AB Global Consulting, a crisis management firm, and Maegis Group, a private security company. AB Global Consulting said its work with Altrnativ was a test and that the two companies didn’t collaborate further. Maegis also told POLITICO the job was a one-time test and that the relationship did not continue. 

Altrnativ also worked directly for LVMH. According to signed invoices seen by POLITICO, the luxury group paid Altrnativ close to €30,000. The company monitored media reports for the group’s top fashion brand Louis Vuitton, which was concerned that news of a controversial guest at a company party in Madrid would mar the launch of a new store. 

LVMH declined to comment. Lesieur did not reply to a request for comment. 

Read more about how Altrnativ monitored critics of LVMH and Lesieur. 

Altrnativ also worked for the defense manufacturer Naval Group, in an ultimately inconclusive attempt to find out “who is loyal and who isn’t” among its French and Australian employees, after a leaked phone call threatened a lucrative but politically sensitive submarine deal.  

As part of the effort, Naval Group shared the names and phone numbers, and in one case the relationship status, of 30 of its employees with Altrnativ. The investigation’s targets also included the Australian journalist Andrew Tillett, then Australian Senator Rex Patrick and Jim McDowell, CEO of the Australian defense firm Nova Systems.  

The deal later ended in diplomatic furor, after Australia elected to join the AUKUS alliance with the U.S. and U.K. and buy U.S. nuclear-powered submarines instead. 

“Following a leak of confidential and internal information from Naval Group in the Australian media, we engaged [Altrnativ] to use open sources to understand the context of this damaging leak,” a spokeswoman for Naval Group said in a statement to POLITICO. The company declined to comment further.  

Read about Altrnativ’s hunt for the source of the Australian leak.  

The company also took on jobs for the defense manufacturer Dassault Aviation, assembling dossiers on an employee and two job seekers of North African origins, searching their social media accounts and compiling private information in a hunt for evidence they had ties to foreign intelligence (and in one case, suggesting Dassault refer a job seeker to France’s security services). 

Leandri denied his company had been involved in investigations that targeted people because of their ethnic origins. “No racism under my watch, that’s not us,” he said.  

Dassault did not reply to a request for comment. 

Read about Altrnativ’s investigations for Dassault Aviation. 

The trove of Altrnativ documents contain more than just OSINT work. They include pitch decks with the company’s logo offering at least six African governments malware and hardware capable of remotely taking over a target’s smartphone, a backpack-sized device able to tap and track phones up to 10 kilometers away and a digital tool capable of monitoring the internet on a large scale. Some documents also bear the logo of Metalexport-S (MEX), a Poland-headquartered military hardware supplier. These pitches were prepared in apparent collaboration with Thierry Carbou, a French-Canadian arms dealer of Cameroonian origin who serves as director on the advisory board of MEX, according to his Linked In profile. MEX and Carbou did not reply to a request for comment.  

Leandri said Altrnativ played no part in these efforts, that his company’s products and branding were included as part of a larger package. “These are not our offers,” he said, adding that unspecified partners added Altrnativ products to their offers but that he had no control over it. He declined to specify what partners he was talking about. Some internal Altrnativ documents pitching African governments not only bear his company’s logo but list Leandri as the company’s legal representative for the deals.  

Read about the efforts to sell cyberweapons to African dictatorships. 

Leandri’s ability to work with so many big brands and agencies despite his recent fall from grace raises the question of how he did it. While some of the pitches are highly professional and offer cutting edge cyberweaponry to governments, some of the open-source surveillance reports for companies are amateurish.  

Part of the answer lies in the high-level contacts he gathered during his time at the heart of the French tech industry. Part of it can be explained by his hiring of former French officials, including one who claims to have been an intelligence officer. 

Leandri also suggested he had been taking personal risks for Europe as part of a new patriotic mission — a narrative that may appeal to French and EU politicians desperate for European champions to rival Chinese, Israeli and American tech titans. 

“I set out to obtain technology to compete against both the Israelis and the Americans,” he said. “That can cost me dearly. In our software, there is zero American technology, zero Israeli technology. Zero!” 

“My fight today is the same as it always was: The only way to protect Europeans is with tools developed by Europeans,” he added. “Sure, I may not be perfect son-in-law material. More like a usual suspect. But aside from that, I don’t see what we do that’s wrong other than bring sovereignty back home.” 

Jules Darmanin and Marion Solletty contributed reporting.  




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