New Delhi: More than 300 verified mobile phone numbers, including of two serving ministers, over 40 journalists, three opposition leaders and one sitting judge besides scores of business persons and activists in India could have been targeted for hacking through an Israeli spyware sold only to government agencies, an international media consortium reported on Sunday.
The surveillance operation was purportedly conducted using the Pegasus spyware, developed by Israeli surveillance company NSO Group, as revealed by a joint media investigation.
The curtain has been raised on a surveillance ring of global scale. A database containing over 50,000 telephone numbers belonging to journalists, ministers, opposition leaders, activists and judges has been found, following a joint investigation by Paris-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, which shared the list of numbers with 17 media partners including The Wire.
The investigation performed forensic tests on a small cross-section of phones associated with the leaked numbers, and revealed clear signs of targeting by Pegasus spyware in 37 phones, of which 10 are Indian.
The numbers were believed to have been shared with government actors by the Israeli surveillance technology firm Pegasus. These numbers mostly belonged to ten countries: India, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde and The Wire are among the 17 media organisations that are working on the report about the extent of this spyware campaign, which is being compiled under the name "Project Pegasus". While the numbers in the list were unattributed, reporters linked them to over 1,000 people in over 50 countries.
The Wire's report claims that the phone numbers found included those of "40 journalists, three major opposition figures, one constitutional authority, two serving ministers in the Narendra Modi government, current and former heads and officials of security organisations and scores of businesspersons."
The Wire added that the number of a sitting Supreme Court judge was also in the list, but that they were unable to ascertain whether the number belonged to the judge during the time period it was compiled.
The leaked data includes the numbers of top journalists at big media houses like the Hindustan Times, India Today, Network18, The Hindu and Indian Express, it said.
The mobile phone of former Delhi University professor S A R Geelani was also allegedly targeted, while the database also included at least nine numbers belonging to eight activists, lawyers and academics arrested between June 2018 and October 2020 for their supposed role in the Elgar Parishad case. This includes the numbers of Keralites Hani Babu and Rona Wilson. Other Keralites who are in the list ae journalists M K Venu, Sandeep Unnithan, J Gopikrishnan, activist Jaison Cooper.
The Wire, however, added that the mere presence of a phone number in the leaked data does alone not reveal whether a device was infected.
"Indeed, it is not possible to know whether their phones were targeted by Pegasus spyware... without digital forensic analysis," it said.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has denied "allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people", saying these had "no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever".
Asserting that "India is a robust democracy that is committed to ensuring the right to privacy to all its citizens as a fundamental right", the government dismissed the media report as an attempt to playing "the role of an investigator, prosecutor as well as jury".
The NSO Group also told The Wire and the Pegasus Project partners that its software was not linked to the list. It can be noted that NSO's licensing for its software claimed it was to be used to surveil terrorists and major criminals.
NSO Group says its clients are confined to vetted governments, believed to number 36, according to The Wire.
The report came just a day before the start of the Monsoon Session of Parliament and could see the matter being raised in two houses, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, beginning on Monday. Some opposition leaders are also expected to give notices for adjournment or debate on this issue.
Responding to the reports, the government referred to its reply given to the media consortium and said similar claims were made in the past as well regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp by India and those reports also had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including WhatsApp in the Indian Supreme Court.
"This news report, thus, also appears to be a similar fishing expedition, based on conjectures and exaggerations to malign the Indian democracy and its institutions," the government said.
It further said that there is a well-established procedure through which "lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out in order for the purpose of national security, particularly on the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety, by agencies at the Centre and States" and the procedure ensures that any interception, monitoring or decryption of any information through any computer resource is done as per a due process of law.
The government said India is committed to ensuring the right to privacy to all its citizens as a fundamental right and for that, it has also introduced the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 and the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, to protect the personal data of individuals and to empower users of social media platforms.
The commitment to free speech as a fundamental right is the cornerstone of India's democratic system, it said.
"We have always strived to attain an informed citizenry with an emphasis on a culture of open dialogue. However, the questionnaire sent to the Government of India indicates that the story being crafted is one that is not only bereft of facts but also founded in pre-conceived conclusions," it said, referring to the queries it had received from the media consortium.
"It seems you are trying to play the role of an investigator, prosecutor as well as jury. Considering the fact that answers to the queries posed have already been in the public domain for a long time, it also indicates poorly conducted research and lack of due diligence by the esteemed media organizations involved," the government said in its response to the global media collective that worked on 'Project Pegasus'.
(With PTI inputs)