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Rahul Gandhi, IT minister Vaishnaw, ex-EC in new Pegasus list, say reports

The investigation named public health experts Gagandeep Kang and M Hari Menon and diplomats from at least five countries as potential targets of Pegasus software manufactured by Israeli firm NSO Group.
By HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUL 20, 2021 05:50 AM IST
The consortium published on Sunday that 38 Indian journalists, including three current Hindustan Times staffers and one from sister publication Mint, were among 180 journalists potentially targeted worldwide. (HT Archive)

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa and two sitting Union ministers were among prominent people potentially targeted by Israeli phone hacking software, an international investigative consortium reported on Monday, sparking a political storm on the first day of Parliament’s Monsoon Session.

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The investigation is based on a data leak of around 50,000 numbers obtained by Amnesty International and Paris-based Forbidden Stories, a non-profit organisation. Amnesty International subsequently forensically investigated 67 of these phones, and found 23 hacked and 14 showing signs of attempted penetration.

The investigation named public health experts Gagandeep Kang and M Hari Menon and diplomats from at least five countries as potential targets of Pegasus software manufactured by Israeli firm NSO Group. Also on the list were the woman who accused then chief justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in 2019 and her relatives, election strategist Prashant Kishor, and Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Abhishek Banerjee.

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Union information technology minister Ashwini Vaishnaw – who defended the government in Parliament hours before being named a potential hacking target – and Jal Shakti minister of state Prahlad Singh Patel were the high-profile government names.

The consortium – which comprises 17 media organisations, including The Guardian, The Washington Post, Le Monde and Indian news website The Wire – published on Sunday that 38 Indian journalists, including three current Hindustan Times staffers and one from sister publication Mint, were among 180 journalists potentially targeted worldwide, including Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf, and reporters from the Wall Street Journal, CNN, New York Times, and Le Monde.

To be sure, as the methodology of the investigation explains, the presence of a number does not indicate the individual’s phone was hacked — just that it was of interest.

The government denied any involvement.

“Aap Chronology Samajhiye! [Understand the chronology] This is a report by the disrupters for the obstructers. Disrupters are global organisations which do not like India to progress. Obstructers are political players in India who do not want India to progress,” Union home minister Amit Shah said in a statement.

Vaishnaw told Parliament that the allegations were an “attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions”. “Time tested processes in our country are well-established to ensure that unauthorised surveillance does not occur,” he said in his first speech as IT minister in the Lok Sabha.

But the Opposition demanded Shah’s removal and a probe into the Prime Minister’s role. Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala dubbed the ruling party Bharatiya Jasoos (spy) Party.

“Modi government has used Israeli spyware for spying on political leaders, judges, an election commissioner and even on his own ministerial colleagues. The Modi government has launched an attack on the country,” he said.

The Congress and TMC said they will raise the issue in Parliament on Tuesday.

A highly invasive malware, Pegasus can switch on a target’s phone camera and microphone, as well as access data on the device, effectively turning a phone into a pocket spy. In some cases, it can be installed without the need to trick a user into initiating a download. In 2019, WhatsApp disclosed that 121 users from India were among those globally spied upon by unnamed entities using Pegasus.

The NSO group called the investigation “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories”, and said it sold its software “solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments”.

The investigation is based on a data leak of around 50,000 numbers obtained by Amnesty International and Paris-based Forbidden Stories, a non-profit organisation. Amnesty International subsequently forensically investigated 67 of these phones, and found 23 hacked and 14 showing signs of attempted penetration. The Wire reported that 10 of the phones forensically examined in India showed they had either been hacked or signs of an attempted hacking.

Gandhi’s phones were not among those examined because he no longer had the handsets he used during the potential targeting, mid-2018 to mid-2019 in the run up to the 2019 general elections. At least nine of his acquaintances and associates – including aides Alankar Sawai and Sachin Rao – were also named as potential targets by the portal.

“If your information is correct, the scale and nature of surveillance you describe goes beyond an attack on the privacy of individuals. It is an attack on the democratic foundations of our country,” Gandhi told The Wire.

Lavasa, who was appointed an election commissioner in 2018, dissented on key decisions of the watchdog clearing PM Modi and Shah of flouting the poll code. He left the election commission last year to join the Asian Development Bank. He was unavailable for comment and refused to participate in the investigation.

Vaishnaw, whose number listed as potential targets for surveillance between 2017 and 2019, was unavailable for comment.

The numbers of Patel, who was the former minister for culture and tourism, and at least 15 of his close associates, including his private secretaries, cook and gardener, were listed as potential targets by The Wire. Patel refused to comment.

Also named were Pradeep Awasthi, former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje’s personal secretary, and Sanjay Kachroo, who served as officer on special duty to Union minister Smriti Irani in 2014-15. Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia’s number was selected for targeting in 2018, reported The Wire.

Kishor was first potentially targeted in the run up to the 2019 elections and again during the recently concluded West Bengal elections, when he worked with the eventual victor Trinamool Congress. “We used to suspect snooping but never realised hacking, that too from 2017 to 2021. Although I changed my handset five times, as the evidence suggests, hacking continues,” he told news channel NDTV. A forensic examination of his current phone showed it was compromised as recently as July 14, reported the Washington Post.

“Two Minutes of silence for the sore losers!” tweeted West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

Three phone numbers belonging to the Supreme Court staffer who accused former CJI Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in April 2019 were selected as potential targets, as well as numbers belonging to her husband, brothers and relatives, reported The Wire. The portal said her number was added as a potential target the same week the allegations were made public. The woman and her family refused to participate in the investigation or comment.

Kang, a virologist who was helping the Kerala government deal with a Nipah outbreak in 2018, told the Washington Post that she struggled to imagine why she would be deemed a target of surveillance. “I lead a very, very boring life,” she told the newspaper.

Two employees of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based in Delhi; Menon, the India country head for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as at least one other foundation employee were also part of the list, reported the Post.

Le Monde reported that the numbers of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and several of his ambassadors in India appeared on the list as potential targets. Dozens of other Delhi-based diplomats and ambassadors, including from Iran, Afghanistan, China, Nepal and Saudi Arabia, were also targeted, the French newspaper added.

Media outlets in the consortium said Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates accounted for most of the numbers on the list .

They included several members of Arab royal families, at least 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists and more than 600 politicians and government officials -- including heads of state, prime ministers and cabinet ministers.

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