At least eight rights activists who are in jail under draconian UAPA in Elgar Parishad case and family, friends and lawyers of the UAPA prisoners have been targeted by the State using hacking software Pegasus sold by the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group, 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 Wire, which is part of the collaboration, reported Sunday that at least nine numbers belonged to eight activists, lawyers and academics arrested between June 2018 and October 2020 in the Elgar Parishad case, were targeted.
The databse include the numbers of UAPA prisoners:
- Rona Wilson, prisoners rights activist
- Hany Babu, Delhi University professor and anti-caste activist
- Vernon Gonsalves, rights activist
- Anand Teltumbde, academic and civil liberties activist.
- Shoma Sen, retired professor
- Gautam Navlakha, journalist and rights activist
- Arun Ferreira, lawyer
- Sudha Bharadwaj, academic and activist.
Most were interrogated by Maharashtra’s Pune police and later by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) between 2018 and 2020.
Shockingly, the phones were chosen as targets during dates which correlate with significant events in the Elgar Parishad case, The Wire reports. According to The Wire’s Sukanya Shantha who has been extensively covering the rights violations and abuses in the Elgar Parishad case, the data shows that phone numbers of Bharadwaj, Gonsalves, Sen and Ferreira continued to show up in the leaked database even months after their phones were seized and they were arrested.
Phones of accused which constitute part of the digital evidence, once seized and sealed, cannot be switched on. Even a small change would amount to tampering with evidence.
However, the numbers appeared in the leaked records even after the accused’s internment – and at a time when their phones were in the custody of the Pune police.
The leaked database also include the numbers of:
- Varavara Rao’s daughter Pavana
- Surendra Gadling’s wife Minal Gadling
- Surendra Gadling’s associate lawyers Nihalsingh Rathod and Jagadish Meshram,
- Surendra Gadling’s’ former client Maruti Kurwatkar, who was also charged in multiple cases under draconian UAPA
- Sudha Bharadwaj’s lawyer Shalini Gera
- Anand Teltumbde’s friend Jaison Cooper, a Kerala-based rights activist;
- Scholar of the Naxalite movement and Bastar-based lawyer Bela Bhatia
- Sagar Gorkhe’s partner Rupali Jadhav
- Mahesh Raut’s close associate and lawyer Lalsu Nagoti
Senior lawyer Mihir Desai, who is representing several persons arrested in the case, told The Wire that this attack can’t be looked at as “simple surveillance”.
“It goes beyond surveillance, it is actually interference with the person’s life. The malware is planted to get control over the person’s data and life,” Desai said.
The lawyer went on to say: “In the absence of a clear data protection law, it has become a nightmare to defend these cases in court.”
In February this year, in an explosive forensic investigation carried out by the Massachusetts-based digital forensics firm Arsenal Consulting, it was found that one of prisoners Rona Wilson’s laptop was attacked and surveilled upon for over 22 months before his Delhi house was raided by the Pune police and he was eventually arrested, and incriminating evidence planted on it.
The forensic company had published an equally damning report last week that showed another prisoner Gadling’s computer too was compromised for over 20 months .
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.
The investigation suggests widespread and continuing abuse of NSO’s hacking spyware, Pegasus.
Pegasus is a malware that infects iPhones and Android devices to enable operators of the tool to extract messages, photos and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones.
The Pegasus Project is a ground-breaking collaboration by more than 80 journalists from 17 media organisations in 10 countries 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.
“Today, for the first time in the history of modern spying, we are seeing the faces of the victims of targeted cyber-surveillance. This is a worldwide scandal – a global web of surveillance whose scope is without precedent. The attack is invisible. Once “infected,” your phone becomes your worst enemy. From within your pocket, it instantly betrays your secrets and delivers your private conversations, your personal photos, nearly everything about you. This surveillance has dramatic and in some cases even life-threatening consequences for the ordinary men and women who have been targeted for their work exposing the misdeeds of their rulers or defending the rights of their fellow citizens,” says Forbidden Stories.