Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut wants to know who funded Pegasus ‘snooping’ project
Shiv Sena’s Rajya Sabha parliamentarian Sanjay Raut has called for a probe into funding of the suspected hacking of 300 phones of prominent Indian politicians, ministers, journalists and activists using Israeli spyware Pegasus and alleged that it could have cost at least $48 million in 2019 alone.
“The Pegasus app was used to spy over 1,500 people including political workers, human rights activists, two Central ministers and 30 media personnel. According to a report, one licence used to spy on 50 phones costs $8 million per year. If 300 phones were spied on then it cost at least $48 million dollars in 2019. There could [have been] more spending in 2020 and 2021. From whose pocket [was] the money spent? Will there be an investigation on this whole issue?,” Sanjay Raut said in his weekly column Rokhthok, published in party mouthpiece Saamana.
The Pegasus row erupted last Sunday night before the beginning of the current monsoon session of parliament after an international investigative consortium reported that India was among countries that used Israeli company NSO Group’s phone hacking software to potentially target politicians, journalists and activists.
The first report alleged that 38 Indian journalists, including three current Hindustan Times staffers and one from sister publication Mint, were among 180 journalists potentially targeted worldwide. Subsequent reports said that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa and two sitting Union ministers including Ashwini Vaishnaw were on the list of potential targets. 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.
However, the presence of a number on the list of potential targets does not indicate the individual’s phone was hacked — just that it was of interest. In the absence of digital forensics of specific devices, it is not possible to conclusively establish that the phones linked to these numbers were hacked. The opposition has targeted the government in the parliament over snooping allegations and demanded a probe to establish if the government was complicit in the project. The government, however, has denied the allegations as figment of imagination.
In his column a week after the snooping scandal first broke, Raut drew a parallel between the alleged use of the malware to spy on citizens and political opponents and the Hiroshima atomic bombing. “This incident is not very different from the Hiroshima atomic bombing. There people had died while here the casualty is the independence,” said Raut.
Carrying on with the analogy, Raut claimed that “mobile phones have now become virtual bombs” planted to keep a tab on the movement of its opponents.
“The list includes over 100 journalists who have been writing against the government, one of them was from Jharkhand who exposed a tribal’s fake encounter to light. Now Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Ravi Shankar Prasad has asked why India alone was being targeted when more than 45 countries had Pegasus links. In a way, the BJP leader has admitted use of Pegasus in India,” Raut’s column further reads.
Responding to Raut’s column, BJP accused Shiv Sena of distracting from the main issue concerning the residents of the state. “Konkan which is the stronghold of Shiv Sena is facing deluge and large scale damages. Instead of providing relief to the people, Sena despite being in power, is talking of Pegasus. The people of Maharashtra have never seen such worst government which keeps people besieged in problems and offers no relief,” said Ram Kadam.