THE WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart revealed in an interview with The Guardian, that many prominent U.S. nationals, along with their friends and family members, were snooped upon in 2019. He said he saw many similarities between the 2019 attack and the latest revelations under the Pegasus Project.
WhatsApp had recorded a similar attack on 1400 of its users for over two weeks in 2019. About 100 of the targeted users were human rights activists and journalists from across the world. The messaging platform had filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group for the same reason. The suit is currently being heard in a US court on whether NSO can be held accountable for its customers’ actions.
“This tells us that over a longer period of time, over a multi-year period of time, the numbers of people being attacked are very high. That’s why we felt it was so important to raise the concern around this. This should be a wake-up call for security on the internet. Mobile phones are either safe for everyone or they are not safe for everyone,” he said.
The WhatsApp chief has hailed the promise made by the tech giants Microsoft and Apple to make their systems more secure against this software.
The Wire has so far revealed 136 Indian names who were the possible target of the Pegasus spyware.
Was former CBI Director Alok Verma and Special Director Rakesh Asthana snooped upon?
Former Chief of Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Alok Verma was placed on the leaked target list soon after he was ousted from his post by the union government at midnight on October 23, 2018. Two other former CBI officials also made it to the list: Rakesh Asthana and A.K. Sharma. Asthana and Sharma were added to the list about an hour after Verma by an unidentified central agency known to be a user of Pegasus.
Along with Verma, seven of his family members were also identified for monitored including the numbers of his wife, daughter and son-in-law. He was removed from his post when he had three months of tenure to go.
Asthana, former Special Director of the CBI, was also removed from the agency on the night of October 23, 2018. He is currently head of the Border Security Force. Sharma was divested as the head of the policy division of the CBI but remained in the agency till January 2019. He retired earlier this year.
Verma’s removal came barely two days after he ordered the filing of a criminal case against Asthana accusing him of corruption. The case mentioned unlawful phone intercepts as well as corruption charges against Asthana. Prior to that, Asthana had written formal letters on multiple instances to the then Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) making allegations against Verma. The matter later went to the Supreme Court.
Both Asthana and Sharma are Gujarat cadre Indian Police Service officers, known for their close proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah respectively from their Gujarat days. Asthana worked closely with Modi when the latter was Chief Minister of the state, Sharma’s name figured with Shah in two main controversies: the 2004 Ishrat Jahan fake encounter and the illegal surveillance of a young woman in 2009.
Chhattisgarh CM claims that NSO officials visited the state under previous dispensation’s rule
Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel has alleged in light of the Pegasus Project revelations that some NSO Group officials had visited the state to meet the former CM Raman Singh during the latter’s tenure “in a secret mission”. The exact time period of the alleged visit was not specified.
He announced constituting a committee to probe this issue. He also demanded the union government come clean on this issue.
The Baghel government had earlier constituted a committee when alleged illegal surveillance was carried out on some Indians by Pegasus through Whatsapp in 2019. The committee was tasked to probe the alleged spying of 100 activists of the state who had been targeted by that attack. The committee’s report or findings are still not out in the public domain.
Monsanto officials under scanner as Maharashtra government ordered probe
In February 2018, the then Bharatiya Janta Party-led Maharashtra government had set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe companies that were allegedly selling or releasing unapproved herbicide-tolerant (HT) transgenic cotton or Bt cotton seeds in the state.
The SIT was required to probe the role of seed giants like Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt. Ltd, Monsanto Holdings Pvt. Ltd. and Monsanto India Ltd. in the unauthorised production, storage and sale of HtBt cotton seeds with HT transgenic gene. The seeds were alleged to be sold in the cotton-growing areas of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Telangana, and Karnataka.
Apart from this, the Prime Minister Office (PMO) also set up the Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee (FISEC), under the Department of Biotechnology to probe the production and sale of unauthorised seeds.
The latest Pegasus Project reports suggest that the phone numbers of six senior officials from Mahyco Monsanto and Monsanto India were selected as possible candidates for surveillance. Also featured in the list is the number of a senior government scientist at the Department of Biotechnology, who was involved with FISEC. They were chosen as targets in mid-2018, at the time when an investigation was underway.
The FISEC later gave a clean chit to Mahyco in its report submitted to the PMO. However, the full report is not yet public.
Assamese leaders, Manipur journalist feature in the list
The Pegasus Project revealed that the snooping target list features the number of Samujjal Bhattacharjee, an advisor to All Assam Students Union (AASU) and a member of a new high-powered committee that was constituted by the Union Home Ministry in July 2019 to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord as the state’s National Register for Citizens was updated in August 2019. Clause 6 is an important provision of the Accord that provides constitutional safeguards to Assamese people.
The Assam accord was signed between the Union government and AASU in 1985 after years of protest by the student body. The accord promised the residents of the state to implement NRC to remove illegal migrants from the state.
Another phone number in the leaked database is of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) leader Anup Chetia. One of his two phone numbers was selected for surveillance in late 2018.
On being informed about this, Chetia told The Wire that he was always aware that his phones had been tapped. “I have two numbers, all the time the police keep listening to my conversations. I am not surprised at all. One number was given to me by the Assam Police itself after I was released from jail (in 2015). So it would be naïve to think that there is no surveillance on me through that number.”
Another phone number found in the leaked data is that of a Delhi-based Manipuri writer Malem Ningthouja. He believes that he may be on the list due to his several meetings with separatist Naga groups between 2012 and 2019 to understand their ideology for his book-writing exercise. His arrest in 2019 for a Facebook post opposing the Citizenship Amendment Bill had hit national headlines.
NSO founder accepts that its clients misuse the spyware
Shalev Hulio, one of the founders of the NSO Group, has acknowledged in his interview in The Washington Post that his clients have in the past violated the basic human rights of their citizens. He said that his company terminated its service of five of its clients, including two in the last year, after conducting a human rights audit. Hulio said he was bound by strict confidentiality agreements with his clients that prevent him from publicly naming them.
Asked about the 37 attempted and confirmed hacks by Amnesty International’s forensic lab, he said, “If even one is true, it is something we will not stand as a company.” Hulio further said the company was still investigating the numbers provided under the Pegasus Project.
Hulio said that he had established three guiding principles for his company at the time of foundation.
First, they would license only to certain government entities, recognising that the technology could be abused in private hands.
Second, they would have no visibility into the individuals targeted by customers after selling them a software license.
The third was to seek approval from the export controls unit of Israel’s Ministry of Defence, an unusual decision because at the time the unit only regulated overseas weapons sales.
The Press Club of India and other prominent media bodies held a press conference to condemn the “surveillance mounted on Indian journalists, activists, ministers, parliamentarians and members of the judiciary” and demanded a Supreme Court-monitored probe into the Pegasus Project revelations.
Meanwhile, a visit by a policeman to The Wire’s Delhi office sparked concern over the government using its policy agencies to intimidate journalists over the Pegasus Project coverage. Siddharth Varadarajan, a founding editor of The Wiretweeted, “A Policeman arrived today with inane inquiries. ‘Who’s Vinod Dua?’ ‘Who’s Swara Bhaskar?’ ‘Can I see your rent agreement?’ ‘Can I speak to Arfa?’.”
The Delhi Police, downplaying this incident has termed this visit as a routine checkup before Independence Day.
BJP Rajya Sabha MP Subramanium Swamy is also up in arms against his party over this issue.
Quoting a report from The Hindu in 2017, he tweeted on Thursday, “Today in the Parliament Library I asked for the Budget for India’s National Security Council Secretariat(NSCS). I asked for an allocation for three years, Rs 44 crores in 2014-15, Rs 33 Crores in 2016-17 & Rs 333 Crores in 2017-18. Why this jump? Because a new Head was added: ‘Cyber Security R&D’?. Modi government spokesperson should clarify where the additional Rs 300 crores of the Rs.333 crore allotted actually go?.”
Throughout last week in Parliament, the Indian government has refused to accede to opposition parties’ demand for an independent probe into the matter, simply brushing aside the reports of global surveillance as attempts to malign Indian democracy.