New Delhi: At least two mobile phone accounts used by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi were among 300 verified Indian numbers listed as potential targets by an official Indian client of the Israeli surveillance technology vendor, NSO Group, The Wire reported.
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. 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 part of a large database of leaked numbers believed to be drawn up by NSO Group clients and accessed by the French media non-profit 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.
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, The Wire said.
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.
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. Sawai's phone was stolen in 2019 and thus unavailable for forensic examination, while Rao said his phone from that period got "fried" and no longer switches on, the report said.
Opposition slams govt
Opposition parties Monday hit out at the government over the alleged phone-tapping of prominent personalities in the country using Israeli Pegasus spyware and demanded an independent judicial or parliamentary committee probe.
The government has, however, dismissed allegations of any kind of surveillance on its part, saying the accusation has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever.
Terming it a very serious issue concerning national security, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor demanded an independent judicial or parliamentary committee probe.
Since the government has said that it has not done any snooping, this should be probed, he said.
The CPM said that two years ago, the party had raised in Parliament that this "dangerous spyware" was being used in India as revealed by WhatsApp.
"The Modi government's response had not categorically denied that it engaged the services of NSO (the Israeli tech firm that created the spyware) but claimed that there is no "unauthorized surveillance". With these revelations, it is clear that this government has engaged NSO for such surveillance against its own citizens," the party said in a statement Monday.
"It is a serious issue and the minister in his statement in the House does not deny that the government was using the software. We will raise this issue in Parliament," said TMC Rajya Sabha MP Derek O' Brien.
(With inputs from IANS and PTI)