The Indian government reacted vigorously, but without a clear denial, to the suspicion that opposition politicians, human rights activists and official officials in the country were investigated with the aid of the Pegasus spying program of the Israeli cyber company NSO Group. An international journalist consortium was able to evaluate a list of potential targets with more than 50,000 telephone numbers that had been leaked to the association Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International. Indian phone numbers are also numerous among the phone numbers that may have been targeted.
Information Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw called the reports on Pegasus in Parliament “extremely sensational” and “many allegations” in this context “exaggerated”. Referring to a statement made by the maker of Pegasus, the Israeli company NSO Group, about the alleged irrelevance of the leaked data, he further stated: “India has a well-established process of lawfully monitoring electronic communications for the purpose of national security is carried out.” Vaishnaw did not make a clear statement on the question of whether the Indian state had or is using the spyware.
Interior Minister Amit Shah, a key figure in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet and in the ruling Hindu nationalist Indian People’s Party (BJP), portrayed the Pegasus publications as part of a conspiracy against the rise of India. Such publications had “one goal: everything to do only possible to humiliate India on the world stage, to spread the same old stories about our nation over and over and to thwart India’s development”.
This is not the first time that the Indian public has heard of the Pegasus cyber weapon from these reports. Rather, that happened in autumn 2019. At the time, the messenger service WhatsApp sued the NSO Group because their software was used to spy on mobile phones by users all over the world. The Indian Express newspaperreported at the time that among the researched were at least two dozen political activists, academics and journalists in India. The then information minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, said a few weeks after the revelations in parliament that, to the best of his knowledge, there had been no “unauthorized” surveillance by government agencies. As early as 2019, the responsible minister did not commit to the question of whether the government or its authorities had purchased the Pegasus software.
The now known data on possible spying attacks indicate a much more extensive espionage activity than could be suspected in 2019. More than 1,300 Indian phone numbers were targeted between May 2017 and July 2019, according to the records. In more than 300 cases, reports the news website The Wire , the numbers were verified, i.e. they could actually be assigned to the alleged target persons listed by name in the file. The Wire, one of the country’s most respected critical media outlets and part of the journalists’ consortium, appears to have been the target of such cyberattacks itself. This is how Siddharth Varadarajan, a co-founder of The Wire, appears, not just among the target people who may be selected for Pegasus; Rather, traces of the malware have actually been forensically proven on his phone.
The list of potential Indian Pegasus victims includes numerous political opponents and social critics of the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The most spectacular thing from the perspective of Indian domestic politics is that several telephone numbers appear in the immediate vicinity of Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of the Indian state founder Jawaharlal Nehru and top politician of the opposition Congress party. If it were to be confirmed, its investigation would mean a direct manipulative intervention in the center of democratic competition. It is also worrying that a member of the Indian electoral commission who had complained about the Prime Minister’s campaigning appears to have been selected as the target of an operation. The electoral commission has traditionally been held in high regard in India; Their professionalism and impartiality are seen as guarantors of the integrity of the political process.
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The number of civil and human rights activists featured in the data is large. Among them are representatives and advocates of the Dalits, the formerly so-called untouchables at the foot of the Indian caste pyramid, who were targeted by the authorities in connection with protests in the state of Maharashtra in early January 2018. But there are also politically active former students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, who were accused of “anti-national” attitudes or even of “seditious” actions because of their criticism of Indian politics in the predominantly Muslim region of Kashmir in the list.
One of the possible victims among these student activists, Anirban Bhattacharya, told The Wire about the alleged spying: “There are things that are shocking and yet one is no longer shocked. It shows what a low standard of democracy we are in those days in the country. That is the price one pays today for peaceful and public dissent. “ In broad circles of the Indian opposition and the liberal and left milieu a deep pessimism about the future of civil rights and political freedom has been eaten under the Modi government. Against this background, the surprise of many at the surveillance allegations should be limited.
However, among the people who have attracted the interest of Pegasus users, one does not come across exclusively political opponents of Narendra Modi, his party and his ideology. Most notable in this context is the fact that several important collaborators and companions of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetans who lives in exile in India, appear in the list of possible objects of spying. Including Tempa Tsering, the current Tibetan exile premier. Intensive secret service engagement with the Dalai Lama and his environment would normally be expected above all from China, India’s most important regional political opponent.
The Pegasus Project succeeded in finding digital traces of the attack on the smartphones of various victims, even if the Trojan had deleted itself. This was possible because the reporters involved in the investigation contacted potential victims and asked them to provide their cell phone data for investigation by Amnesty’s Security Lab. A total of 67 smartphones from people who appeared on the original list were analyzed by the Security Lab.
According to the Amnesty cyber experts, traces of Pegasus activities were found on a total of 37 devices: 23 cell phones were successfully infected with the malware and 14 showed evidence of an attempted attack with the cyber weapon. The program was therefore still active on some of the devices examined until July. Even the latest iPhones with the latest operating systems were affected. In 15 cases it could be proven that the devices had been infected with the Pegasus malware less than a minute after the query documented in the leaked data.
According to Forbidden Stories, the cell phone numbers were fed into a system of the NSO Group, a company that sells its Pegasus spyware to police authorities and secret services worldwide. The list ranges from 2016 to the present. The numbers were fed in from more than ten states that are customers of NSO.
Before a planned surveillance with Pegasus, the monitors usually identify whether a mobile phone is online and in which country it is located. According to the NSO, the use of Pegasus is not possible in all countries.
The location at which a cell phone is registered with a cellular network operator and whether it is online is information that network operators around the world store in a system called the Home Location Register (HLR). In order for cell phone communication to work internationally, cell phone operators must, among other things, exchange data from this HLR with one another. Anyone who has access to this system can call up information on any mobile phone worldwide. In addition to the phone number, this is also the hardware identification number of the SIM card.
The list of more than 50,000 numbers therefore includes queries from the HLR system. That doesn’t mean that each of the 50,000 numbers was subsequently attacked or infiltrated by Pegasus. NSO values the statement that you have “no access to the data of the target persons of your customers”. Entering a number means at least that the police and secret services had an interest in the people to whom the cell phone number belongs.
For months, reporters from numerous countries have been researching where, how and against whom the espionage software Pegasus from the Israeli company NSO is used by secret services and police authorities around the world. The starting point was a list of more than 50,000 cell phone numbers from around 50 countries that was leaked to the non-profit organization Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International.
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Originally published at https://zaviews.blogspot.com.