Former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, was twice selected as a potential surveillance target in leaked phone number data, making him one of dozens of Indian politicians, journalists, activists and government critics whose numbers were identified as possible targets for the Israeli company’s government clients, according to an investigation into a massive data leak.
The global collaborative investigative project has revealed that Pegasus spyware targeted over 300 mobile phone numbers in India including that of two serving Ministers in the Narendra Modi government, three Opposition leaders, one constitutional authority, 40 journalists, rights activists, lawyers and business persons.
The Guardian, which is part of the collaboration, reported that two numbers belonging to Gandhi, who led the Congress party during India’s 2019 general election, were selected as candidates for possible surveillance in the year before the vote and in the months afterwards by NSO, whose spying tool Pegasus allows customers to infiltrate mobile phones and monitor messages, camera feeds and microphones.
According to a leaked list of potential targets selected by NSO customers, phones belonging to at least five of Gandhi’s close friends and other Congress party officials were also identified as potential targets using the spyware.
“The choice of Rahul Gandhi as a target for potential surveillance at a time when he was president of the opposition Congress and was leading his party into the 2019 general election against Narendra Modi raises troubling questions about the integrity of the electoral process. In the United States, an attempt by Richard Nixon to snoop on the offices of his Democratic rivals in the run up to the 1972 presidential election – the Watergate scandal – eventually cost him his job,” writes Siddharth Varadarajan in The Wire.
The Pegasus Project is a ground-breaking collaboration by more than 80 journalists from 17 media organisations in 10 countries including Indian website The Wire coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media non-profit, with the technical support of Amnesty International, who conducted cutting- edge forensic tests on mobile phones to identify traces of the spyware.
Responding the news, Rahul Gandhi said to The Wire: “Targeted surveillance of the type you describe whether in regard to me, other leaders of the opposition or indeed any law-abiding citizen of India is illegal and deplorable. 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. It must be thoroughly investigated and those responsible be identified and punished.”
Human rights activists, journalists and lawyers across the world have been targeted by authoritarian governments using hacking software sold by the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group, according to the investigation.
According to The Guardian, forensic analysis conducted on Wednesday on the phone of Prashant Kishor, a political strategist working for the party that defeated Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) in the West Bengal state election earlier this year, established it had been hacked using Pegasus as recently as the day it was examined. Recently, he was credited with a role in the victories of Mamata Banerjee in Bengal and MK Stalin in Tamil Nadu.