Tuesday, 19 October, 2021

Phones of Indian leaders, journos, businessmen ‘tapped’ by Israeli spyware

Phones of Indian leaders, journos, businessmen ‘tapped’ by Israeli spyware

NEW DELHI: The monsoon session of India’s parliament began on Monday amid allegations that spyware from an Israeli firm was used to hack phones of MPs, businessmen and journalists.

The database had a list of up to 50,000 mobile phone numbers, more than 300 of them reportedly belong to Indians, according to The Wire, which is yet to reveal all of the names but said it would do so over the week.

But it reported that the Indian portion of the list included 40 journalists, three opposition leaders, two ministers in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, one constitutional authority, current and former heads and officials of security organizations, among others.

The allegations about the use of the malware, known as Pegasus, were published on Sunday as part of a global investigation by the Washington Post, the Guardian and 14 other media organisations, including The Wire in India.

The news drew sharp reactions on social media. The Mumbai Press Club called for an investigation into the allegations. However, it is unclear where the list came from or how many phones were hacked.

In response to the development, the Indian government said, “The allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever. In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp by Indian state. Those reports also had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including WhatsApp in the Indian Supreme Court. This news report, thus, also appears to be a similar fishing expedition, based on conjectures and exaggerations to malign the Indian democracy and its institutions.” NSO has denied any wrongdoing. It said the software was intended for tracking criminals and terrorists and was only sold to military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies from countries with good human rights records.

The Wire, a digital news platform, which is part of the collaboration, reported on Sunday that the leaked global database of 50,000 telephone numbers, was first accessed by French non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, and then shared with 16 media partners: The Guardian, Washington Post, Le Monde, Suddeutsche Zeitung, and 11 other Arab and European organisations.

The Indian list of 300 “verified” numbers includes those used by “ministers, opposition leaders, journalists, the legal community, businessmen, government officials, scientists, rights activists and others”, it said.  The Guardian, however, said the presence of a phone number in the database was not a confirmation of whether the corresponding device was infected with Pegasus or was subject to an attempted hack. “…the consortium believes the data is indicative of the potential targets NSO’s government clients identified in advance of possible surveillance attempts,” it reported.

The NSO Group describes its customers as 60 intelligence, military and law- enforcement agencies in 40 countries, although it will not confirm the identities of any of them, citing client confidentiality obligations, said The Washington Post. Responding to an earlier lawsuit by WhatsApp in California, NSO Group had said that Pegasus was used by sovereign governments in foreign countries Indian MPs are likely to raise the issue in the coming days. “Parliament today is likely to debate inflation, rise in fuel prices, the farmers’ bill and Covid-19 mishandling and vaccination,” opposition MP Derek told the media.

“The Pegasus issue is important, but the opposition is likely to take it up in a couple of days when we have more names of politicians and judges coming out,” O’Brien added.

Forensic tests on some of the phones with numbers on the list showed traces of the spyware. The Washington Post reported that 37 of the phones were successfully hacked.

NSO was also accused of cyber attacks against Indian journalists and activists in 2019 - WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against the Israeli firm, alleging that its spyware targeted users on the social media platform. NSO Group denied the allegations.