Modi government accused of spying on critics and opponents using Pegasus spyware


Just when Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government is trying to recover from widespread international and local condemnation for its culpability in India’s COVID apocalypse, it is now being derided for what some are calling India’s Watergate.

A powerful surveillance tool called Pegasus, made by Israeli firm NSO and licensed only to governments, was allegedly used in India to snoop on mobile phones of up to 1,000 people over the past six years, according to a groundbreaking global collaborative investigation by a consortium called the Pegasus Project.

The Project comprised more than 80 journalists working for 17 media organisations around the world, including the Guardian, India’s The Wire and the Washington Post.

Indian targets were people from a variety of professions, including journalists, political opponents, or critics of Modi’s policies.

Opposition party leader Rajiv Gandhi was reportedly selected twice for surveillance. So was ace political strategist Prashant Kishor, who helped Modi win the 2016 election but has since become a critic of the politician. Kishore recently engineered a stunning defeat of Modi and the BJP in the West Bengal state elections, but little did he know at the time that his phone had been hacked up to the day it was examined for breaches, according to the report.

Social justice and labour activists who have pushed back against what they see are anti-democratic and regressive laws over the last few years were also reportedly targeted by the surveillance tool, along with Tibetan Buddhist clerics, and the head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

All up, around 1,000 numbers were apparently listed for surveillance but the investigation could not provide a precise figure unless devices were examined.

The Indian government has strongly rejected the report.

“The allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people have no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever,” India’s ministry of electronics and information technology said in a statement. “Any interception, monitoring, or decryption of any information through any computer resource is done as per due process of law.”

NSO Group, the maker of Pegasus, has also strongly denied any involvement and said that “NSO Group will continue to investigate all credible claims of misuse and take appropriate action based on the results of these investigations”.

WHAT IS PEGASUS?

In Greek mythology, Pegasus is known for being a white-winged horse, but these days the Israeli spyware of the same name could now be the more well known of the two.

The spyware allows customers to hack into mobile phones and peek into messages, camera feeds, and microphones — in other words a person’s entire life. The developer of the tech NSO says it flogs the software to governments as a tool to fight terrorism and crime.

It isn’t clear how many of the thousand or so numbers selected for surveillance in India were actually snooped upon.

However, the Washington Post reported that a sampling of 22 smartphones in India for evidence of hacking through forensic analysis revealed that 10 had been successfully infected with Pegasus.

Eight of the remaining 12 phones tested as inconclusive but were all Android phones, which apparently do not log the information required to detect the intrusion.

All-in-all, 50,000 such phone numbers around the world belonging to politicians, judges, lawyers, teachers and others have apparently been tapped by various governments.

Currently, this ignominious club includes the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, the United Arab Emirates, and India.

The bank of 50,000 numbers around the world was first accessed by the nonprofit journalism organisation Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International before they both later roped in media organisations to be part of the Pegasus project.

Forbidden Stories coordinated the investigation while and Amnesty’s International’s Security Lab spearheaded the forensic analyses.

While the Indian government has strongly refuted the report, observers have pointed out that any plans to snoop on citizens have to be approved by senior officials at the Home Ministry, which means they do not require judicial oversight to go ahead.

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