NSO Group, on multiple occasions, said that it offers its services only to vetted government clients. (REUTERS)
NSO Group, on multiple occasions, said that it offers its services only to vetted government clients. (REUTERS)

ED officer, Kejriwal’s aide among potential targets of hacking

Their numbers were included on a database of 50,000 phone numbers, possibly selected for surveillance by agencies that were also clients of the Israel-headquartered NSO Group, which makes the Pegasus surveillanceware
By HT Correspondent, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUL 27, 2021 12:01 AM IST

Phone numbers belonging to former director-general of Border Security Force (BSF) K K Sharma, senior Enforcement Directorate (ED) officer Rajeshwar Singh and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s former aide V K Jain, among others, were potentially targeted for surveillance through Israeli firm NSO’s Pegasus spyware, a report said on Monday.

According to The Wire, phone numbers used by a junior official in the Prime Minister’s Office, a retired officer of India’s external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and two army colonels also figure in the database of 50,000 numbers possibility selected for surveillance by agencies that were also clients of the NSO Group.

The database was first obtained by France-based nonprofit Forbidden Stories, which shared the information with a consortium of 17 media organisations in 10 countries including The Wire. The presence of a number on this list does not imply the individual’s phone was hacked - just that it was of interest.

The Wire, which is part of the consortium of media organisations, said K K Sharma’s number was placed on the list of probable targets for surveillance in 2018, barely a month after the 1982 batch IPS officer attended a conference by an affiliate of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) in Kolkata in February.

Sharma, who retired in September, was appointed by the Election Commission as a special observer for the Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal and Jharkhand the following year but was quickly dropped after the Trinamool Congress cited his participation in the RSS event. Sharma didn’t respond to calls and texts to seek his response.

The numbers of ED’s controversial joint director Rajeshwar Singh, currently posted in Lucknow, and his family members, were also selected for the possible surveillance between 2017 and 2019, The Wire reported.

Singh, who has investigated some high-profile cases including the 2G spectrum allocation scam and the Aircel-Maxis case against former finance minister P Chidambaram, was in the news in 2018 when the Centre removed then Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director Alok Kumar Verma and then special director Rakesh Asthana from the agency following their public spat. There have been reports that Rajeshwar Singh played a key role in the Verma-Asthana face-off.

When contacted by HT, Rajeshwar Singh refused to comment.

The Wire report said Arvind Kejriwal’s ex-advisor V K Jain’s name was added to the list in 2018 after he was questioned by the Delhi Police in connection with the alleged assault on the then Delhi chief secretary Anshu Prakash in February 2018. Jain resigned as Kejriwal’s advisor within a month, citing personal reasons. The police recorded his statement in this case but declined to share it with Kejriwal and his deputy Manish Sisodia. On July 1 this year, the Supreme Court rejected a request by the police to let it withhold Jain’s 2018 statement.

Jain could not be contacted for his comments.

The number of a former colonel Mukul Dev, who has been at loggerheads with the Centre on multiple issues including scrapping free rations for officers deployed in peace areas, degradation of armed forces and NFU (non-functional financial upgradation), was also placed as a possible target in 2019, The Wire added.

Dev told HT: “I have been victimized by this government in every possible manner for fighting for the welfare of the armed forces. This is the state of present government. I knew back in 2018 that I am under surveillance when I filed a complaint with Punjab Police following a direct threat to me”.

Another colonel-ranked officer, Amit Kumar, who filed a petition in the Supreme Court on behalf of 356 Army personnel against what they apprehended was an impending dilution of the Armed Forces (Special Forces) Act (AFSPA), was also placed on the list.

The Wire report further said that BSF Commandant Jagdish Mathani, a retired RAW officer Jitendra Kumar Ojha, a senior official at Niti Aayog and a junior official at PMO were also on the snoop list.

Mathani refused to comment while Amit Kumar and Ojha could not be contacted for their comments.

The government has neither confirmed nor denied whether it has purchased the spyware. NSO Group has on multiple occasions said that it offers services only to vetted government clients. The company has disputed the leaked list of numbers as those targeted by its clients.

In all, The Wire has revealed the names of 142 people who were targets or potential targets for surveillance by clients of the NSO Group. Apart from at least 40 journalists, former Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi, two of his aides, political strategist Prashant Kishor, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa and Union minister Prahlad Patel were also allegedly targeted.

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