Members of Dalai Lama’s inner circle on Pegasus list
About 20 Tibetan activists, politicians and religious leaders were part of the leaked database of 50,000 phone numbers that clients of the Israeli company NSO Group, the developer of Pegasus, selected for surveillance during 2017-19
Phone numbers of key members of the inner circle of the Dalai Lama, including Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) chief Penpa Tsering, are among the potential targets selected by users of the Pegasus spyware, according to media reports on Thursday.
The 86-year-old Tibetan spiritual leader himself doesn’t use a smartphone, but several persons close to him were among possible targets for surveillance, including his emissary in New Delhi Tempa Tsering, his private secretary Tenzin Taklha and his aide Chhimey Rigzen, Le Monde reported.
About 20 Tibetan activists, politicians and religious leaders were part of the leaked database of 50,000 phone numbers that clients of the Israeli company NSO Group, the developer of Pegasus, selected for surveillance during 2017-19.
The list also included the Gyalwang Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje, former CTA or Tibetan government-in-exile head Lobsang Sangay, whose number was added in mid-2018, Penpa Tsering, who was elected chief of the CTA in May this year, and Samdhong Rinpoche, the head of a trust tasked with overseeing the selection of the Dalai Lama’s successor, according to reports by The Guardian and Le Monde.
Paris-based Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International gained access to the leaked list, which has been analysed by a consortium of 17 media outlets from across the globe.
Both Le Monde and The Guardian reported their analysis indicated that the Tibetan leaders were selected as potential targets by an Indian security service or the Indian government. The Indian government has so far denied any wrong-doing and also not confirmed or denied whether it licensed the Pegasus spyware.
There was no immediate response from Indian officials on the reports that Tibetan leaders were included in the list of potential targets for phone hacking.
Le Monde reported that members of the Dalai Lama’s inner circle were first selected for possible surveillance from the end of November 2017, when former US president Barack Obama met the Tibetan spiritual leader in New Delhi. Sangay appeared on the list in mid-2018, when he was president of the CTA and had increased trips within India and abroad.
However, the phones of the Tibetan leaders were not examined and it wasn’t possible to say whether they were infected by the spyware, which is capable of accessing all the contents of a phone, recovering geo-location data and turning it into an audio or video recorder.
Referring to the inclusion of the Tibetans in the list, Le Monde reported: “It reveals, as never before, the suspicion of the Indian state vis-à-vis the Tibetan community, suspected of being infiltrated by Chinese spies, as well as its strategic importance at a time when the tension between the two most populous countries in Asia continues to increase.”
It added that India has reasons to be wary, because as recently as August 2020, a Chinese national suspected of being a spy, who was paying Buddhist monks for information about the Dalai Lama’s bodyguard, was arrested in India.
“India wants to make sure that Tibetans don’t strike a deal with the Chinese that involves the Dalai Lama going back to Tibet,” an unnamed former staffer with the CTA told The Guardian.
China has launched a campaign to push the narrative that it will oversee the selection of the Dalai Lama’s successor and that India can have no role in this process. This has been rejected by the CTA, and the US passed a law in 2020 to sanction Chinese leaders who interfered with the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation process.