The Pegasus has brought to light how the Modi government is involved in the surveillance. Arun Srivastava writes about how the spyware targets activists and journalists who voice their dissent and leak private information of political leaders.
THE Pegasus expose has brought a significant political issue to the public domain for a painstaking discourse.
Three years after the 2019 election this issue shows that institutions were made to compromise whether it was the election commission, the Supreme Court or the media.
Suppression of dissent
These bodies were placed under surveillance. It is worth mentioning that in those days Ashok Lavasha was the third EC. During the campaigning Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called upon the first-time voters and youths to register their vote to protest the killing of security personnel in Pulwama. Modi was criticised for this call. While two other ECs supported him, Lavasa disagreed. In fact, his disagreement proved costly. His family was pursued by the ED, IT and other agencies.
Incidentally, Pegasus was also spying on Lavasha.
Pegasus even spied on the opposition leader Rahul Gandhi and his eight close aides including Alankar Sawai. Gandhi had been consistently posing electoral challenges to him. It is worth recalling that at one stage Gandhi got the attention and support of people.
Pegasus even spied on election strategist Prashant Kishor.
This was the time when many important political and defence issues like Tin Talak, CAA, 370 and the Rafale deal were dominating the national scenario. Journalists who were chasing these stories including the appointment of Jay Shah, son of BJP leader Amit Shah as the secretary of the BCCI and Nikhil Merchant were also on the list.
Journalists who raise dissenting voices were targeted. They include Wire’s founder-editors Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu, diplomatic editor Devirupa Mitra, Wire journalist Rohini Singh, columnist Prem Shankar Jha, and journalist Swati Chaturvedi. The list also includes former editor of Economics and Political Weekly Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.
Dismissal of claims by the Indian Government
The Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw, who has been holding the brief and defending the Modi government on the floor of Lok Sabha on the opening day of the Monsoon session, was one of the two ministers under surveillance. The other minister is Prahalad Singh. Though Ashwini in his reply described the story as “sensational”, and an attempt “to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions”, he has no clarification if the Pegasus sold the equipment to the countries.
India was one of the countries which had bought the services. Like him, the former IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad too had also denied the complicity of the Modi government. In fact, the services and equipment were used between 2017 and 2019. During those years Ranjan Gogoi was the Chief Justice of India and he had given a verdict in the matter of Ram Mandir, 370, NRC and many other important issues.
Loss of human rights caused by Pegasus
An investigation by the Guardian, the Wire and 15 other media organisations suggests the widespread and continuing abuse of NSO’s hacking spyware, Pegasus, which the company insists is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists. It admits to selling equipment only to military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies in 40 countries. It also claims that it thoroughly vets its customers’ human rights records before allowing them to use its spy tools.
Essentially, human rights activists, journalists and lawyers across the world have been targeted by authoritarian governments using hacking software sold by the Israeli surveillance company, NSO. In India, never has an operation of this nature and character been carried out by any government. Even late Prime Minister like Indira Gandhi relied on the IB for feedback and actions.
Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based non-profit media organisation, and Amnesty International initially had access to the leaked list and shared its access with media partners as part of the Pegasus project.
The association’s analysis of the leaked data identified at least 10 governments who are NSO’s customers entering numbers into a system: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The Wire reported that forensic tests conducted as part of the media investigation project revealed that a small cross-section of phones associated with these numbers had clear signs of targeting by Pegasus spyware in 37 phones, of which ten are Indian.
Pegasus had surfaced in the Indian media in 2019 when it was found that activists and lawyers who represented those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, were among the targets of ‘state-of-the-art-surveillance’ by operators using Pegasus.
Following this, WhatsApp has filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group for allegedly sending malware that exploited its platform to conduct this surveillance.
Numbers of five of Rahul Gandhi’s social friends and acquaintances were also placed on the list of potential targets. None of the five plays any role in politics or public affairs, the report said. Gandhi’s numbers, which he has since given up, are also part of a large database of leaked numbers believed to be drawn up by NSO Group clients and accessed by Forbidden Stories and shared with 16 news organisations, including The Wire, The Guardian, Washington Post, Le Monde, and Haaretz.
Gandhi’s phones are not among those examined as he no longer has the handsets he used at the time that his numbers appear to have been selected for targeting – from mid-2018 to mid-2019. Nevertheless, the Wire said that in the absence of forensics, it is not possible to conclusively establish whether Pegasus was deployed against Gandhi. At the same time, the presence of at least nine numbers linked to his circle – one of the larger clusters around a person of interest that the Pegasus Project has detected – suggests that his presence in the leaked database is not happenstance.
Apart from Gandhi’s personal phones, the numbers of two close aides, Alankar Sawai and Sachin Rao, also figure in the leaked database, for mid-2019. Rao is a member of the Congress Working Committee whose current role involves training party cadre while Sawai is attached to Gandhi’s office and typically spends most of his working day with him.
In addition, the mobile number of key strategist Abhishek Banerjee, the powerful Trinamool Congress MP, and the nephew of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, was also selected as a potential target for surveillance by a government client of NSO Group, an investigation of leaked data by The Wire and its media partners on the Pegasus Project has shown.
Meanwhile, the Wire claimed that since NSO insists that only “vetted governments” can purchase Pegasus, the targeting of Kishor — who was working as an advisor to Mamata Banerjee — is the first iron-clad piece of evidence that this deadly spyware is being used in India by a yet unidentified agency to gather political information from rivals of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. In fact, the agency has been targeting him to gather information about the government’s political opponents in different parts of the country. The forensic examination of his current phone also shows that what appear to be unsuccessful attempts to initiate a Pegasus attack were made on Kishor’s phone in 2018.
Traces of Pegasus on Kishor’s phone were also detected in 14 days in June 2021 and 12 days in July 2021, including July 13, the day when he met Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi in Delhi. In fact, a hack of Kishor’s phone occurred even on the date that The Wire met him, and AI helped conduct forensic analysis on it.
Apart from the two Union ministers, the phone numbers of Kachroo, his father and his minor son also appear in the leaked data. A corporate executive, Kachroo was chosen by the then Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani as her officer on special duty (OSD) in 2014 but he never got formally appointed. BJP sources confide that one of the reasons Irani was shifted to the lightweight Textiles Ministry in 2016 was her impulse to unilaterally take decisions without consultation.
According to The Wire a range of phone numbers belonging to people who are associated with the Sangh Parivar is also in the records. (IPA Service)