Security researchers in the United States have found a provable connection between the Pune police and a hacking campaign conducted against human rights activists Rona Wilson, Varavara Rao, and Hany Babu who have been arrested in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case under draconian UAPA.
This is the first time that the state’s involvement has been directly established in the case.
“There’s a provable connection between the individuals who arrested these folks and the individuals who planted the evidence,” Juan Andres Guerrero-Saade, a security researcher at SentinelOne told Wired magazine.
More than a year ago, forensic analysts revealed that unidentified hackers fabricated evidence on the computers of at least two activists arrested in Pune, India, in 2018, both of whom have languished in jail and, along with 13 others, face draconian charges. Now, security researchers have pointed towards links between the hacking attempts on three of the accused and the Pune police department.
“This is beyond ethically compromised. It is beyond callous. So we’re trying to put as much data forward as we can in the hopes of helping these victims,” Juan Andres Guerrero-Saade said.
The report in Wired magazine stated that the security research organisation points out that three of the email accounts (Wilson, Babu and Rao) compromised by hackers in 2018 and 2019 had a recovery email address and phone number added as a backup mechanism. It was to allow the hacker to easily regain control of the accounts if their passwords were changed.
The email address “included the full name of a police official in Pune who was closely involved in the Bhima Koregaon 16 case.”
“Security researcher Zeshan Aziz found the recovery email address and phone number tied to the Pune police official’s name in the leaked database of TrueCaller, a caller ID and call-blocking app, and found the phone number linked to his name in the leaked database of iimjobs.com, an Indian job recruitment website….,” read the report.
The report further notes: “Scott-Railton [of Citizen Lab] further found that the WhatsApp profile photo for the recovery phone number added to the hacked accounts displays a selfie photo of the police official—a man who appears to be the same officer at police press conferences and even in one news photograph taken at the arrest of Varvara Rao.”
Last year, Arsenal Consulting, a digital forensics firm working on behalf of the defendants, analyzed the contents of Rona Wilson’s laptop, along with that of another accused, human rights lawyer Surendra Gadling. Arsenal analysts found that evidence had clearly been fabricated on both machines. In Wilson’s case, a piece of malware known as NetWire had added 32 files to a folder of the computer’s hard drive, including a letter in which Wilson appeared to be conspiring with a banned Maoist group to assassinate prime minister Narendra Modi.
Mumbai-based defense lawyer representing several of the Bhima Koregaon 16, Mihir Desai, said the new report appears “very damning.”
“We’ve known things have been planted, but the police could have always said, ‘we are not involved in all this,’” says Desai to the magazine. “By showing the police did this, it would mean there was a conspiracy to arrest these people. It would show the police have acted in a vicious and deliberate manner knowing fully well this was false evidence.”