India’s main opposition Congress party has accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of “betraying” and compromising national security following revelations that dozens of Indians were potential targets of snooping from a spyware fabricated by Israel.
More than 1,000 phone numbers in India were among the nearly 50,000 selected worldwide sites of interest to customers of the Israeli NSO group, which creates the Pegasus spyware, an investigation by a consortium of media organizations revealed Sunday.
The leaked list, shared with the media by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based nonprofit newspaper, and rights group Amnesty International, showed the identities of the targeted people with more than 300 of these phone numbers in India , including politicians, dozens of journalists, businessmen and even two Modi government ministers.
According to Indian media, Modi’s main rival, former Congress party chairman Rahul Gandhi, was among dozens of Indian politicians, activists and government critics identified as potential targets of Pegasus spyware.
“The spying of India’s security forces, the judiciary, cabinet ministers, opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi, journalists and other activities through the spyware of a Isn’t a foreign entity a betrayal and an inescapable dismantling of national security? ” Congress spokesman Randeep Surjewala said at a press conference in New Delhi on Monday.
– Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) July 19, 2021
Gandhi’s phone numbers, which he has since resigned, appear to have been selected for targeting between 2018 and mid-2019, when parliamentary elections are being held in India.
On Monday the Congress party called for an inquiry into the roles of Modi and his closest aide, Interior Minister Amit Shah, in the scandal.
“Our first request is the immediate dismissal of Interior and Homeland Security Minister Amit Shah and a probe into the prime minister’s role in the matter,” Surjewala said.
Among others whose phone numbers have been targeted are a top-notch virologist, a woman who had accused a former chief justice of India of rape, a former election commissioner who oversaw the 2019 national polls and the chief political strategist Prashant Kishor.
What is the Pegasus Project?
Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International have access to a list of tens of thousands of mobile numbers worldwide that were potentially targeted by Pegasus spyware, and have shared it with media organizations in several countries.
While Forbidden Stories oversaw the investigation, called Project Pegasus, Amnesty International’s Security Laboratory provided forensic analysis and technical support during the probe.
Pegasus is a spyware owned by NSO Group, an Israeli technology company. It allows remote monitoring of smartphones, secretly unlocks the contents of a target’s mobile phone and transforms it into a listening device.
The company claims that spyware is sold only to the “verified governments” of the world to combat “terrorism” and other serious crimes.
The company, which does not confirm the identities of its customers, described the results of the Pegasus Project as “exaggerated and baseless”.
Although the Indian government has not yet accepted whether any of its agencies use spyware, the investigation suggests the widespread and ongoing abuse of pirated spyware in the country.
Indian news website The Wire, along with The Guardian and The Washington Post, on Monday reported that most of these individuals, including Gandhi, had been targeted in preparation for the 2019 national elections, which saw Modi returned to power with a larger majority than in 2014.
The exposition has caused great political controversy in India with the Congress calling the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of the right Modi the “Bharatiya Jasoos Party” – “receptionos” means a spy in Hindi – and the accusation of listening to and conversations of the room “of people.”
Who has been all the target in India?
Although it is not known how many phones on the list were intended for surveillance or how many of these attempts were successful, the Washington Post said forensic analyzes conducted on 22 smartphones in India whose numbers were listed on the list shows that at least 10 were targeted with Pegasus, seven of them successfully.
Among the Indians whose phones had been targeted with the proprietary spyware of the NSO was Ashok Lavasa, the former electoral commissioner of India, who had accused Modi of violating the model code of conduct before the 2019 elections.
In addition, at least 11 of these phone numbers belong to a former member of the Supreme Court and his family. The woman, whose identity cannot be revealed for legal reasons, had accused India’s former chief justice Ranjan Gogoi of rape in April 2019 and was soon fired from her job.
The exposure said the phone numbers belonging to the woman and her family began being monitored the same week when their charges against Gogoi were first reported. Gogoi is currently a BJP member of the Indian parliament.
Also appearing on the Pegasus spyware list are more than 40 Indian journalists belonging to various news organizations.
Vijaita Singh, who covers internal security for the Hindu newspaper, is among them. She told Al Jazeera that, until a few days ago, she was not aware of any intrusion into her phone.
“It was puzzling and disturbing,” he said. “These days, our phones contain literally every aspect of our lives.”
Journalist Ritika Chopra covers the Indian Electoral Commission and the ministry of education for the Indian Express newspaper.
She said she found out her phone number was on a leaked list of potential surveillance targets just last week after The Wire contacted her, seeking comment.
“I was told I could be targeted in 2019. I don’t want to speculate on who is behind this. It is a violation of my privacy and my freedom, but it will not affect my work as much. journalist, ”Chopra told Al Jazeera.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, writer and former editor of Economic and Political Weekly, whose phone was also compromised, told Al Jazeera that the demonstration had a “chilling effect” on him.
“Send a signal and a message to others that you can be spied on,” he told Al Jazeera.
Thakurta said a “small section” of the Indian media “actually plays the role of the fourth state and holds the truth to power.”
“Look who these more than 40 journalists are? They’re all journalists who have criticized the government, so this is clearly sending a message that we can invade your privacy,” he said.
What does the government say?
At least two ministers serving in the Modi government – Ashwini Vaishnaw and Prahlad Singh Patel – are also listed in the leaked database of numbers believed to be selected by NSO Group clients as potential targets for surveillance.
Ironically, Vaishnaw, who was recently inducted as information technology minister, defended the government on Monday on the issue in parliament, saying the demonstration was an “attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions “.
“In the past, similar accusations were made [about the use of Pegasus] on WhatsApp but there is no factual basis for these and they have been categorically denied, ”he said.
Vaishnaw said “any form of illegal surveillance” is not possible with “checks and balances in our robust laws and institutions.”
Interior Minister Shah said the Pegasus Project report released by “disrupters” was timed to help “obstructors” in parliament when it began its monsoon session.
“Disrupters are world organizations that do not like India to progress. Obstacles are political actors in India who do not want India to progress. The people of India are very good at understanding this chronology. and this connection, ”he said Monday.
In a statement on Monday, Access Now, an organization that defends the digital rights of global users, said it was outraged that the products sold by NSO had been “used to hack and invade the private communications” of thousands of people in in the globe.
Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific political director and head of Global Cybersecurity at Access Now, told Al Jazeera that piracy is a crime, with no exceptions to be made even if it is directed by a government. He asked the Indian government to respond if its agencies or security services had dealt with the OSN.
“Previous statements have eluded demand, and have vaguely stated that safeguard measures are being followed to prevent surveillance at sea. Clearly this is not the case. The world’s greatest democracy cannot be at the mercy of a society. shadow and private, ”he said.