Verma, Asthana, Anil Ambani in Pegasus list: Report
Phone numbers belonging to the former chief of the Central Bureau of investigation (CBI), his then deputy, and a third CBI officer, were selected as possible targets for surveillance through the Pegasus spyware, as were those used by industrialist Anil Ambani, and Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama’s associates, reports said on Thursday.
According to The Wire, numbers linked to the three people and several others in their close circle were among a database of 50,000 phone numbers possibly selected for surveillance by agencies that were also clients of Israel-headquartered NSO Group, which makes the Pegasus spyware.
The Wire, which is part of the consortium of media organisations that analysed the database, said the database included Verma’s phone number, the personal telephone number of his wife, daughter and son-in-law soon after he was ousted as CBI chief on October 23, 2018 after a rare open dispute with his deputy Rakesh Asthana. The number of Asthana and of a third CBI official, AK Sharma, were also placed on the list, the report said.
HT reached out to Verma, Asthana and Sharma but did not receive a response immediately.
“The numbers of Asthana, Sharma, Verma and his family members figure in the leaked database for a short period. By the second week of February, 2019, by which time Verma had finally retired from government service, this entire cluster of persons ceased being of interest to the government agency which had added them to the list,” the report said.
Anil Ambani and a senior official of the Reliance ADA Group, corporate communications chief Tony Jesudasan and his wife, were also added to the list of phones purportedly shortlisted for targeting. These numbers figure at a time when the central government’s decision to purchase 36 Rafale jets was subjected to public scrutiny, with questions being raised as to how the offset partner -- Ambani’s firm -- was chosen, the report released late on Thursday night said.
The report added that there were other numbers of people connected to the defence or aerospace industries. These were Dassault Aviation’s representative in India, Venkata Rao Posina, former Saab India head Inderjit Sial and Boeing India boss Pratyush Kumar -- their numbers appear in the leaked database at different periods of time in 2018 and 2019.
The report clarifies that the presence of a number on the list does not mean it was snooped upon. That conclusion can only be drawn after a forensic analysis of the phone is conducted.
The Guardian, which is among the consortium of media organisations reporting on the Pegasus Project, on Thursday stated that a person close to the Dalai Lama was also part of the list. “(The) Indian government, which hosts the Tibetan leader, suspected of being NSO client that selected numbers,” the report stated.
“The phone numbers of a top ring of advisers around the Dalai Lama are believed to have been selected as those of people of interest by government clients of the NSO Group. Analysis strongly indicates that the Indian government was selecting the potential targets,” the report said.
“Senior advisers to the Dalai Lama whose numbers appear in the data include Tempa Tsering, the spiritual leader’s long-time envoy to Delhi, and the senior aides Tenzin Taklha and Chhimey Rigzen, as well as Samdhong Rinpoche, the head of the trust that has been tasked with overseeing the selection of the Buddhist leader’s successor,” the report added. The report in The Wire, however, said that “the phone numbers indicate that the targets may have been selected by an unknown India-based client of the NSO Group”.
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.
The list database was first obtained by France-based nonprofit Forbidden Stories, which shared the information with the reporting partners. The devices of at least 67 of the numbers were analysed by Amnesty International and of these, 37 had signs of being hacked by Pegasus. Of these 37, 10 were in India.
On Monday, reports revealed that aside from 38 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 hacked. The list also included 11 members of the friends and family, along with the number of the woman who accused former Chief Justice of India Rajan Gogoi of sexual harassment.
Union information technology minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who defended the government in Parliament hours, was also named as a potential hacking target on July 19.
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. The opposition, however, has called for a probe into the allegations.