Phones of Indian politicians, journalists, activists hacked using Pegasus: Report

Phone numbers of two Union ministers, three opposition leaders, a sitting Supreme Court judge, 40 journalists, rights activists, scientists, businessmen, government officials and lawyers have been found on a leaked database of targets for hacking that used Israeli spyware ‘Pegasus’, reported The Wire this evening.

The leaked database of thousands of telephone numbers believed to have been listed by multiple government clients of the Israeli surveillance technology firm includes over 300 verified Indian mobile telephone numbers, reveals an investigation by The Wire and 16 media partners. The leaked database was accessed by Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International and shared with The Wire, Le Monde, The Guardian, Washington Post Die Zeit, Suddeutsche Zeitung and 10 other Mexican, Arab and European news organisations as part of a collaborative investigation called the ‘Pegasus Project’.

The media organisations working together were able to identify the owners of over 1,571 numbers spread across at least 10 countries and forensic analysis of some of the devices showed the presence of Pegasus.

The Wire’s analysis of the data shows that most of the names were targeted between 2018 and 2019, in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha general elections.

According to The Wire, forensic tests conducted on some phones associated with these numbers revealed clear signs of targeting by Pegasus spyware. Without subjecting a phone to a technical analysis, it is not possible to conclusively state whether it was successfully compromised, The Wire report says.

“The presence of a number in the database indicates its likely selection as a target for surveillance but whether a phone was actually hacked and infected can only be established through forensic examination of the device – more easily done if the instrument in question is an iPhone,” The Wire editor Siddharth Varadarajan wrote. Varadarajan is one among the 40 journalists who were targeted by Israeli spyware Pegasus.

Read The Wire’s detailed coverage of the incident.

The parent company of the spyware NSO has denied that the leaked list was linked in any way to the functioning of its software. In response to the Pegasus Project, NSO has said that people in the list were not targeted by the governments using Pegasus but were maybe a part of a larger list of numbers that other customers of theirs used for different purposes.

Meanwhile, The Union government has denied involvement in the hacking, saying, “There has been no unauthorised interception by government agencies.”

Two years back, WhatsApp had informed several Indian rights lawyers and activists of the Pegasus spyware attack that had targeted them in May 2019. Among the 121 Indian citizens who were victims of surveillance are Bhima Koregaon lawyer Nihal Singh Rathod, Elgar Parishad accused Hany Babu, Rona Wilson, Anand Teltumbde, Bastar-based human rights lawyer Bela Bhatia, jailed activist Sudha Bharadwaj’s lawyer Shalini Gera, Gadchiroli-based lawyer Jagdish Meshram among others.