Israeli-Spyware used Pegasus to snoop on ministers, opposition, journalists, businessmen: Report

Israeli bug Spyware Pegasus, has allegedly conducted surveillance on about 300 Indians including two serving union ministers, three opposition leaders, one constitutional authority, current and former heads of security organisations, administrators and 40 senior journalists and activists, according to an expose by a global consortium of media organisations.

The list also included several businessmen, activists, scientists and those from the legal fraternity. A sitting Supreme Court judge’s number was also on the database, although it is still not clear if the judge is using it for Whatsapp and other messaging services, webportal The Wire, a part of the global media project along with 16 other media outlets, reported late on Sunday evening.

As per the reports, a leaked database of thousands of numbers believed to have been listed by multiple government clients of an Israeli surveillance technology firm included more than 300 verified Indian mobile telephone numbers.

Forensic tests conducted as part of this project, disclosed clear signs of targeting by Pegasus spyware in 37 phones, out of which 10 are Indian, the reports said.

Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International accessed the leaked database and shared it with Le Monde, The Guardian, Washington Post, Die Zeit, Suddeutsche Zeitung, The Wire in India and 10 other Arab, Mexican and European news organisations as part of a collaborative investigation called the ‘Pegasus Project’.

According to the reports, a majority of the phone numbers in the list were geographically concentrated in ten country clusters, such as India, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information and Technology dismissed the reports of surveillance of journalists, news agency ANI reported.

It is not the first time that Pegasus spyware has sparked controversy in India. The Citizen Lab, a Canadian organisation, in September 2018 published a comprehensive report identifying 45 countries, including India, where the spyware was being used. 

As per the reports, a group called Ganges in India used Pegasus and WhatsApp hacks to target journalists and activists. The targeting by Ganges had “political themes”.

In October 2019, WhatsApp also revealed that Indian journalists and human rights activists have been targets of surveillance by operators using Pegasus. This revelation was followed by a lawsuit, filed by WhatsApp in a US federal Court in San Francisco, in which it alleged that the Israeli NSO Group, Pegasus Spyware targeted some 1,400 WhatsApp users with it’s spy software. 

A lawyer and human rights activist based in Bastar, Bela Bhatia; another human rights lawyer based in Bastar, Shalini Gera and a tribal and Dalit rights activist Degree Prasad Chauhan based in Raigarh are the Indian activists, who were allegedly snooped.

Around 1,000 people across 50 countries have been identified from the list globally. Murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s wife’s phone was also targeted using Pegasus, while her fiancé’s phone was infected by the spyware a few days after his death, The Washington Post reported.

Several Arab royal family members, including nearly 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists, and over 600 politicians and government officials including cabinet ministers, diplomats, and military and security officers were allegedly targeted. The Washington Post reported that numbers of several heads of state and prime ministers also appeared on the list.

According to the reports, NSO describes its customers as 60 intelligence, military and law enforcement agencies in 40 nations.

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