By Express News Service
NEW DELHI: An international collaborative investigation by journalists on Monday continued to reveal more names, including those of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, election strategist Prashant Kishor and two ministers in the Modi government, whose phones were potentially targeted for hacking using Israeli malware Pegasus.
The names, which included new IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw and Minister of State for Food Processing Prahlad Singh Patel, were revealed hours after the former defended the government in Parliament.
Making a suo motu statement in Lok Sabha, Vaishnaw said the report on the government using Pegasus was nothing but an attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions.
“It is not a coincidence that the reports have been published a day before the monsoon session of Parliament. In the past, similar allegations were made on WhatsApp but there is no factual basis to these and have been categorically denied,” he said.
The number of Vaishnaw, who recently became a minister, was among the 300 verified Indian numbers listed as potential targets for surveillance during 2017-2019 by a client of the Israel-based NSO group, The Wire said.
While Parliament saw a stormy start to the Monsoon Session as Vaishnaw made the statement amid the din on the Pegasus affair, a political slugfest ensued outside Parliament with the Congress and the BJP trading barbs over the issue.
While the Congress demanded the sacking of Home Minister Amit Shah and a probe into the “role” of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the matter, the BJP hit out at the Opposition party over its attack and claimed that there is not a “shred of evidence” to link either the ruling party or the Modi dispensation with the matter.
While Union home minister Amit Shah called it a ‘report by disrupters for obstructers’, the Congress sought his resignation and a probe into the role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the matter.
Reacting sharply to the report, Shah said, “disruptors and obstructers will not be able to derail India’s development trajectory through their conspiracies” and asserted that it the report has been “amplified by few with only one aim – to humiliate India at world stage.”
Releasing the fresh tranche of investigation, The Wire said at least two mobile phone accounts used by former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi were listed as potential targets by “an official Indian client of the Israeli surveillance technology vendor, NSO Group”.
The forensic inspection of a cross-section of phones drawn from this list by Amnesty International’s technical lab has confirmed the presence of Pegasus spyware in as many as 37 instruments, 10 of which are in India.
The Opposition will hold a strategy session on Tuesday on how to corner the government in Parliament on Pegasus.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, renowned virologist Gagandeep Kang, India head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Hari Menon and former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa’s names also featured on the potential list of targets.
Over 1,000 Indian phone numbers were on the list of potential targets of which 300 were verified by the collaborative following which technical forensic analysis was performed on 22 smartphones.
The portal claimed that traces of the malware were found in Kishor’s smartphone. According to the portal, the list of around 50,000 phone numbers across the world was obtained through leaked data by Amnesty International and Parisbased Forbidden Stories.
The use of the malware could be confirmed on the smartphones only after forensic analysis. Some smartphones do not leave its traces and hence the potential hack could not established.
Israeli company, the NSO group, which owns Pegasus, claims only ‘vetted governments’ are part of its clientele.
Monday’s list came a day after it was revealed that the malware was used to hack into the phones of around 40 journalists and activists critical of the government.
While Lavasa’s phone was added to the list after he faulted Prime Minister Modi for poll code violations, Kang’s was added in 2018 and Menon’s around 2019.
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, the report said.
In the absence of forensics, it is not possible to conclusively establish whether Pegasus was deployed against Gandhi, it said.
In his remarks, Vaishnaw said, “A highly sensational story was published by a web portal yesterday night. The press report appeared a day before the Monsoon session of the Parliament.”
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“This cannot be a coincidence. In the past similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp. Those reports have no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties. The press report of July 18, 2021 also appeared to be an attempt to malign the Indian democracy and a well-established institution,” the minister said.
The report has been published by The Wire news portal from India as also 16 other international publications including Washington Post, The Guardian and Le Monde, as media partners to an investigation conducted by Paris-based media non-profit organisation Forbidden Stories and rights group Amnesty International into a leaked list of more than 50,000 phone numbers from across the world that are believed to have been the target of surveillance through Pegasus software of Israeli surveillance company NSO Group.
Also on the list was the personal secretary to Vasundhara Raje Scindia, when she was the BJP’s chief minister in Rajasthan, and Sanjay Kachroo, who worked as an officer on special duty (OSD) for Smriti Irani in her first years as a Union minister in the Modi government from 2014-2015, it said.
Other junior politicians linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s leader, Pravin Togadia are other individuals whose numbers figure in the database.
The news portal said the list reveals that several people associated with the functioning of elections were also selected for potential surveillance, including Lavasa, the only member of the 3-member Election Commission to rule that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had violated the Model Code of Conduct while campaigning for the 2019 general election.
The leaked data also includes Hari Menon, the India head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and at least one other foundation employee, who were selected in mid 2019.
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Gandhi told The Wire that he had received suspicious WhatsApp messages in the past, one of the known vectors for a spyware hack, and frequently changed numbers and instruments so as to make it “a little harder for them” to target him.
Asked for his reaction to the news that he had been placed on a list of potential targets for hacking, Gandhi told The Wire, “Targeted surveillance of the type you describe whether in regard to me, other leaders of the opposition or indeed any law-abiding citizen of India is illegal and deplorable.”
“If your information is correct, the scale and nature of surveillance you describe goes beyond an attack on the privacy of individuals. It is an attack on the democratic foundations of our country. It must be thoroughly investigated and those responsible be identified and punished,” the former Congress chief said.
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Such was the apparent interest in Gandhi that the numbers of five of his social friends and acquaintances were also placed on the list of potential targets, the report said.
Hack not established, says government
“The consortium has accessed a leaked database of 40,000 numbers. The presence of a number does not indicate whether there was an attempted hack, or a successful one,” Vaishnaw said.
ADR founder on list
Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) founder Jagdeep Chhokar, associates of Union minister Smriti Irani and former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia, and around 11 mobile phonesbelonging to a Supreme Court officer who levelled sexual harassment allegations former CJI Ranjan Gogoi were also on the list of potential targets.
‘Report by disrupters’
Union home minister Amit Shah called it a ‘report by disrupters for obstructers’ and said they havebeen amplified by a few whose only aim is to do whatever is possible to humiliate India on world stage.
IWPC demands independent probe in Pegasus snooping row
The Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC) Monday demanded an independent probe into the use of Pegasus spyware for alleged snooping on journalists.
In a series of posts on the microblogging site Twitter, the journalist body said it is “unfortunate” that in a democracy like India, journalists have to go through “something like this” in the course of their work.
“IWPC strongly condemns the spying on the phones of 40 Indian journalists,” it tweeted.
Citing media reports, the IWPC noted the Israeli software allegedly used for snooping is sold only to the governments.
“And, as the government has come out with a denial, we demand an independent inquiry in the whole matter,” it said.
The IWPC said independent journalism is one of the “most important tools” to uphold the rights that the Constitution has vested into the citizens of this country.
“It is unfortunate that in a democracy like India, journalists have to go through something like this in the course of their work,” the journalist body said, adding “under no circumstances should the independence of media be compromised”.
(With PTI Inputs)