NEW DELHI: Spyware Pegasus, which is sold by the NSO Group of Israel, may have been used to conduct surveillance on about 300 Indians, including two serving Cabinet ministers at the Centre, three opposition leaders, a Constitutional authority, government officials, scientists and about 40 journalists, according to French media nonprofit, Forbidden Stories, and Amnesty International.
The list also included activists, businessmen and those from the legal fraternity. A number registered in the name of a sitting Supreme Court judge was also on the database, although it was unclear if the judge was still using it for Whatsapp and other messaging services, The Wire, a web portal which was part of the global media project involving 16 other outlets, reported late Sunday evening.
The leaked database of around 50,000 phone numbers globally has the names of several Indian journalists. Names of others suspected to have been targeted will be revealed later in the days ahead.
While the presence of a number on the list indicates a surveillance target, whether a hacking attempt was successful and the phone was infected with Pegasus or not needs to be followed up with digital forensic analysis. Reports said that forensic tests confirmed the targeting of 37 phones, of which 10 – nine iPhones and one Android – were Indian.
The leaked database was accessed by Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International and shared with The Guardian, The Washington Post, Le Monde, The Wire, among others, as part of a collaborative investigation called the ‘Pegasus Project’.
India was among the 10 countries where the numbers were concentrated with Mexico topping the list with 15,000 numbers. A large share of the numbers was also from West Asian countries such as UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan, France and Hungary being the other prominent countries on the list.
This is the second time that Pegasus has been linked to phone surveillance. In 2019, some WhatsApp users in India, including journalists and activists, were informed that their phones had been compromised.
This time, among those named, by their own acknowledgement, are The Wire’s Siddharth Vardharajan and Rohini Singh, The Hindu’s Vijaita Singh and independent journalists Prem Shankar Jha and Swati Chaturvedi.
Since Sunday afternoon there had been speculation over the names and it is expected to trigger a fresh political controversy when Parliament meets on Monday. The allegation of surveillance is set to cast a shadow on the monsoon session of Parliament which gets underway on Monday.
Globally, close to 1,000 people across 50 countries have been identified from the list. The Washington Post reported that murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s wife’s phone was targeted using Pegasus, while his fiancé’s phone was infected by the spyware a few days after his death.
FT editor Roula Khalaf was among the 180 journalists across the world whose phone was targeted.
Several Arab royal family members, at least 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists, and more than 600 politicians and government officials — including cabinet ministers, diplomats, and military and security officers – are suspected to have been targeted. The numbers of several heads of state and prime ministers also appeared on the list, The Washington Post reported.
NSO describes its customers as 60 intelligence, military and law enforcement agencies in 40 countries, the report said.