Pegasus row: Only two devices given for probe, says Supreme Court panel
The panel has given till February 8 to people to submit their phones for a scan. The deadline was earlier set at January 7.
The three-member panel appointed by the Supreme Court to look into whether Israeli spyware Pegasus was used by the government to infiltrate phones of opposition party leaders, activists and journalists has said that only two devices have been submitted for investigation so far.
The panel has given till February 8 to people to submit their phones for a scan. The deadline was earlier set at January 7. The panel put out a public notice on February 3 seeking more people to submit their devices.
A France-based consortium of journalists last year accessed a leaked database of 50,000 numbers who may have been targeted for surveillance by clients of NSO Group.
The panel comprises Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, Dean of National Forensic Sciences University in Gandhinagar, Prabaharan P, Professor at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Kerala, and Ashwin Anil Gumaste, Institute Chair Associate Professor at IIT Bombay.
Speaking in Parliament on July 19, 2021, union minister Ashwini Vaishnaw countered reports suggesting the Indian government used Pegasus to hack into the phones of journalists, activists, opposition leaders and ministers. The reports were nothing but an “attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions,” he said then.
His statement came shortly before he was named as one of the politicians who had been targeted, according to an investigation by a consortium of media houses, which said Pegasus may have been used to potentially target.
On January 28, New York Times reported that Pegasus was part of a $2 billion equipment deal between India and the Israel in 2017.
The report has prompted Opposition parties to ask the apex court, which set up a committee to look into the issue, to step in again.
The Congress party said last week that the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled government has “hijacked democracy” and duped the Supreme Court. It urged the Supreme Court to take cognizance of the matter and initiate appropriate penal proceedings against the government for attempting to “deliberately and knowingly deceive” it.
The Supreme Court on October 27, 2021, appointed the three-member panel, under the supervision of retired Supreme Court judge R V Raveendran to look into the allegations.
The petitioners in case have sought help from cybersecurity experts to examine whether the malware was used on the phones.
Cybersecurity expert Anand Venkatanarayanan, who claims to have inspected two of the allegedly infected phones, said there was evidence of a Pegasus infestation. “There is definitely a possibility that more phones were infected,” he added. He is a strategic advisor with a Delhi based think tank Deepstrat.
In his affidavit to the panel, he said that in technical parlance, such attacks are called “zero-click” ones, where no user action is required to activate Pegasus. “These capabilities clearly establish that it is not just a surveillance software, but an implantation mechanism, where the deployer not only has access to target’s data but can implant false/fake data in the target’s device.”
A second cybersecurity expert, Sandeep Shukla, who is a professor at the computer science department at IIT Kanpur, has deposed that he scanned at least seven Android malware samples.
“As reported here, they (the malware) were identified on virustotal’s as Trojan and spyware,” he has said in his affidavit. “All samples have similar extraordinary spying capabilities with minor distinctions. It is important to note that all Pegasus variants used as samples are pre-2019.” To be sure, Shukla has only inspected the malware, not the phones.