The disclosures revealed Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi among hundreds of other citizens selected for possible surveillance by the Modi government.
Earlier this week, a major investigation by a global consortium of media outlets into a data leak of more than 50,000 numbers revealed the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was used to hack journalists, government officials and human rights activists around the world.
The list was dominated by numbers from ten countries: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The leaked data was first accessed by French media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International’s Security Lab, which shared them with seventeen media organisations from ten countries.
With more details being revealed by the day, where the spying operation seems to have been at its most extensive – as of now at least – is India.
Indian news portal The Wire revealed that hundreds of verified Indian phone numbers were targeted between 2017-2019, including two belonging to India’s opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi.
Gandhi was identified for surveillance in 2019, alongside other figures during the lead up to India's general elections in May 2019.
Writing in a column for The Hindu today, Pranesh Prakash called the revelations “India’s Watergate moment”.
Additionally, the Guardian reported today that Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was also enlisted as a person of interest by India in 2019.
Who was targeted?
Reportedly 300 verified mobile phone numbers were identified apart from Rahul Gandhi, including those of ministers and government officials, journalists, judiciary members (including a sitting Supreme Court Judge), rights activists, businessmen and scientists.
The Wire confirmed that Pegasus spyware was found in the smartphone of poll strategist Prashant Kishore, after being forensically examined by Amnesty's Security Lab.
Security Lab’s report showed that unsuccessful attempts were made to initiate a Pegasus attack on Kishor’s phone months prior to the 2019 elections.
Ashok Lavasa, the only member of the Election Commission who ruled that Modi had violated the Model Code of Conduct during the 2019 elections, was another target.
Records also found Jagdeep Chhokhar, the head of a key election watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms, was enlisted around the same time as Lavasa.
At least 40 Indian journalists were listed as targets between 2017-2019, including from The Wire and other major news outlets.
Several prominent activists, including now-jailed Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leader Umar Khalid and an anti-caste leader Ashok Bharti, were also part of the database.
A number of BJP members as well as media figures not known to be critical of the government were targeted too.
Newly inducted BJP minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who dismissed the reports as nothing “but an attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions,” was found hours later to also be a potential target in 2017. As was government union minister Prahlad Patel.
At the foreign level, aside from the Pakistani PM, names included ambassadors to India from Afghanistan, China, Iran, Nepal and Saudi Arabia.
Indian political reaction
Following the series of revelations, Narendra Modi’s government was accused by the opposition Congress Party of treason and being the “deployer and executor” of a “spying racket”.
“This is clearly treason and total abdication of national security by the Modi government, more so when the foreign company could possibly have access to this data,” Congress said in a statement.
“This is an unforgivable sacrilege and negation of constitutional oath by the home minister and the prime minister,” it added.
Amid slogans being hurled against the Indian prime minister’s government during Tuesday’s parliamentary session, opposition members demanded an independent probe into the snooping claims and the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah.
In a statement, Shah insisted that the aim of the revelations was to “do whatever is possible to humiliate India at the world stage, peddle the same old narratives about our nation and derail India’s development trajectory”.
“This is a report by the disrupters for the obstructers,” he claimed.
However, Shah nor other BJP members have directly responded to the claims of whether India used Pegasus spyware to surveil its own citizens. And while the government has not categorically denied spying on individuals, it said that “allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever”.
NSO says its Pegasus spyware – classified as military grade surveillance technology and exported only with approval from the Israeli defence ministry – is sold to “vetted governments”.
Until now, the Modi government has refused to declare whether or not it is an NSO client.
However, researchers at Citizen Lab, the University of Toronto’s cyber-security group that has extensively studied Pegasus, have concluded that India is one of the company’s clients.
Meanwhile, according to the Guardian, “the selection of Indian numbers largely commenced around the time of Modi’s 2017 trip to Israel, the first visit to the country by an Indian prime minister and a marker of the burgeoning relationship between the two states, including billions of dollars in deals between Delhi and Israeli defence industries”.
1. A govt has used it to spy: Pegasus is sold only to govts. So it would follow that it has been used by a govt against ministers, journalists, opposition leaders, supreme court judges, and many others. This is essentially an attack on our freedoms in india.— Nikhil Pahwa (@nixxin) July 18, 2021
Why it matters
The revelations have major implications on surveillance and privacy in the world’s largest democracy.
Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul’s sister and general secretary of Congress, labelled the Pegasus leaks an “affront to democracy”.
“If true, the Modi government seems to have launched a grave and sinister attack on the right to privacy – constitutionally guaranteed to Indian citizens as a Fundamental Right,” she said on Twitter.
Indian tech news platform Medianama said: “While India has long been suspected of being a Pegasus buyer, the scale and nature of the surveillance it allegedly has embarked upon, and the targets it seems to have picked, don’t appear to indicate national security concerns of organised crime dealings – for which surveillance is usually sanctioned.”
Given the ongoing assault on media freedom and steady curbing of dissent that has occurred under Modi’s tenure since 2014, that his government could be implicated in what essentially amounts to political espionage, adds to yet another scandal that is unlikely to go away anytime soon.