Journalists, opposition leaders, a constitutional authority, businesspersons and two serving ministers in the Narendra Modi government: These are some of the alleged targets of a purported surveillance operation using the Pegasus spyware, developed by the Israeli NSO Group, as revealed by a joint media investigation.
The curtain has been raised on a surveillance ring of global scale. A database containing over 50,000 telephone numbers belonging to journalists, ministers, opposition leaders, activists and judges has been found, following a joint investigation by Paris-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, which shared the list of numbers with 17 media partners including The Wire. The investigation performed forensic tests on a small cross-section of phones associated with the leaked numbers, and revealed clear signs of targeting by Pegasus spyware in 37 phones, of which 10 are Indian.
However, the Indian government denies the "allegations regarding government surveillance" and says India is committed to ensuring the right to privacy to all of its citizens.
The phone numbers were believed to have been shared with government actors by the Israeli surveillance technology firm Pegasus. These numbers mostly belonged to ten countries: India, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Washington Post and The Wire are among the 17 media organisations that are working on the report about the extent of this spyware campaign, which is being compiled under the name "Project Pegasus". While the numbers in the list were unattributed, reporters linked them to over 1,000 people in over 50 countries. The Wire report says journalists from the Hindustan Times, India Today, Network18, Indian Express, The Pioneer and The Hindu were among those targeted.
The Wire's report claims that the phone numbers found included those of “40 journalists, three major opposition figures, one constitutional authority, two serving ministers in the Narendra Modi government, current and former heads and officials of security organisations and scores of businesspersons.”
The Wire added that the number of a sitting Supreme Court judge was also in the list, but that they were unable to ascertain whether the number belonged to the judge during the time period it was compiled.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has denied “allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people”, saying these had “no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever”. In a response carried by ANI, the government has said the Government agencies had a well established protocol for interception, which includes sanction and supervision from highly ranked officials in central and state governments, for clear stated reasons only in national interest.
The NSO Group also told The Wire and the Pegasus Project partners that its software was not linked to the list. It can be noted that NSO's licensing for its software claimed it was to be used to surveil terrorists and major criminals.
In October 2019, WhatsApp said it was suing NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm, that was behind the technology for Pegasus, which was used by spies to hack into phones of roughly 1,400 users around the world.
These users spanned across four continents and included diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials. Indian users were among those who were targeted. Then, The Indian Express reported that "two dozen academics, lawyers, dalit activists and journalists in India" had been snooped on using Pegasus.
NSO was the pioneer in the so-called lawful intercept spyware market valued at $12-billion. The small-sized firm, which employs 600 people in Israel and around the world, has a current market valuation of $1 billion.