A global database of hundreds of people whose phones may have been infected with the Pegasus software includes 300 Indians of which at least 40 are journalists. A forensic analysis of the phones of some of the journalists has confirmed that they were compromised and may have thus been spied upon.
Among the journalists targeted are Newsclick contributor Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta, Siddharth Varadarajan and M K Venu (The Wire), Vijaita Singh (The Hindu), Muzammil Jalil and Ritika Chopra (The Indian Express), Shishir Gupta, Prashant Jha, Rahul Singh, and Aurangzeb Naqshbandi (Hindustan Times), and independent journalists Swati Chaturvedi and Rohini Singh.
Speaking to Newsclick, Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta said the revelations prima facie looked like a case of the government impinging on the privacy and human rights of citizens.
He said that he had been contacted by representatives of the non-profit Forbidden Stories, which accessed the database, and who told him that his phone may have been compromised. Two rounds of tests revealed that it had been compromised around April-June 2018 when he and his associates were working on a book about the links between Facebook and the BJP, and stories on the Ambani family.
“This raises many questions about the role of the government as according to the NSO Agency (the manufacturer of the software), only governments or governmental agencies can purchase the software for investigating criminal activity. In India, for such surveillance to take place, there is a procedure according to which the Home Secretary has to approve it. Has this happened? Are all these 40 journalists accused of criminal activities?” he asked.
Other Indians include two ministers of the Modi government, opposition leaders, at least one Supreme Court judge, activists and business leaders.
The Pegasus software, manufactured by the Israeli NSO Group, is used to hack phones and monitor all communication. The NSO group claims that its clients are only ‘vetted governments.’
These revelations were published by 17 news organizations across the world, including The Wire, which will run a series of articles in the coming days on Indians in various spheres of life who were targeted.
Some of the other media organizations that are part of the ‘Pegasus Project’ are Washington Post, The Guardian, Suddeutsche Zeitung, and Le Monde. The leaked database containing thousands of telephone numbers is believed to have been listed by multiple governments, which are purportedly clients of an Israeli surveillance technology firm called the NSO group. The details of the leaked database were shared with these media outlets by Paris-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International.
The investigation has further revealed that at least nine numbers appearing on the database belonged to eight activists, lawyers and academics arrested between June 2018 and October 2020 for their supposed role in the Elgar Parishad case.
Refuting any allegations regarding its involvement in surveilling Indian citizens, the Indian government, in a statement, said, “The allegations regarding govt surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever.” It also calls the investigative report a “fishing expedition” based on “conjectures and exaggerations”.