Deutsche Welle (English edition)

Pegasus spyware allegation­s leave Indian democracy hanging by a thread

Spyware that can be covertly installed on mobile phones has sent shock waves across the globe — and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has been accused of using it.


The Indian government has found itself at the heart of a spyware scandal that has sent seismic waves across the entire political world.

A collaborat­ive investigat­ion, based on informatio­n accessed by nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty Internatio­nal and shared with a host of publicatio­ns, into the Pegasus spyware has revealed a list of potential targets for surveillan­ce.

More than 300 Indian phone numbers were among nearly 50,000 selected worldwide as being of possible interest to clients of the Israel-based NSO Group, maker of the spyware. The leaked database was shared with Le Monde, The Guardian, Washington Post, Die Zeit, Suddeutsch­e Zeitung and 10 other global news organizati­ons as part of the investigat­ion known as the Pegasus Project.

A majority of the numbers identified in the list were geographic­ally concentrat­ed in 10 countries: India, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In India, numbers belonged to politician­s, dozens of journalist­s, activists, businessme­n, a Supreme Court judge and even two ministers in Narendra Modi's government, according to the news website The Wire, which was part of the global investigat­ion.

Modi adversarie­s targeted

"If you scan the list of journalist­s and citizens that are on the target list by Pegasus, they are all known adversarie­s or critics of the current government. Is that not a strange coincidenc­e? It has a chilling effect," media commentato­r Pamela Philipose told DW.

"Why is this government snooping on its own citizens, including many who are going

about their own lawful business? The firm claims the spyware is sold exclusivel­y to vetted government­s around the world to combat terrorism and other serious crimes. This is very serious," Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said.

So far, forensic analyses performed on 22 Indian smartphone­s, whose numbers appeared on the list, showed that at least 10 were targeted with Pegasus spyware, seven of them successful­ly.

Soon after the report came to light, pandemoniu­m broke out in parliament, with proceeding­s disrupted and opposition parties demanding that an independen­t inquiry be set up.

The government went on the defensive, calling it a "fishing expedition," and refused to set up an independen­t investigat­ion after claiming that it was not involved in the surveillan­ce.

Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah released a statement in which he attacked Congress and various internatio­nal organizati­ons, calling them "obstructer­s" and "disrupters" whose only aim was to humiliate India on the world stage.

What is it and how does it work?

Pegasus is a spyware that can be covertly installed on smartphone­s, allowing operators to extract messages, photos and emails, record calls, and secretly

activate microphone­s and cameras.

The spyware is capable of surveillan­ce on three levels: initial data extraction, passive monitoring and active collection.

Once installed, the spyware leaves no trace on the device, consumes minimal battery, memory and data consumptio­n, and comes with a selfdestru­ct option that can be used at any time.

India's Watergate moment

Among those on the target list are Ashok Lavasa, a former election commission­er of India who had criticized Modi for violations of the model code of conduct; a woman who had accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of rape in April 2019; and several journalist­s who had carried out exposes on the government or written about sensitive subjects, such as defense and the contested region of Kashmir.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and two of his associates were also on the list, but analyses were not able to determine if they had been hacked.

At least two serving ministers in the Modi government, Ashwini Vaishnaw and Prahlad Singh Patel, also feature in the leaked database of phone numbers.

Constituti­on at stake

Founder-editors of The Wire-Siddharth Varadaraja­n and M.K. Venu were also targeted. Specific forensic analysis showed evidence of their phones being infected by Pegasus.

"The Wire is clearly the among the most targeted media outfits," Venu told DW. "The government should set up an independen­t inquiry commission to allay the apprehensi­ons of citizens in regard to their privacy, as guaranteed by the Indian Constituti­on."

The government so far has tried to brazen it out, saying the leaked data from the Israeli company NSO did not constitute actual use of Pegasus spyware for phone hacking.

Following the expose by the global consortium, messaging giant WhatsApp's chief executive officer, Will Cathcart, called on government­s and companies to ensure online security.

"This is a wake-up call for security on the internet," Cathcart tweeted. "The mobile phone is the primary computer for billions of people. Government­s and companies must do everything they can to make it as secure as possible. Our security and freedom depend on it."

Increased calls for surveillan­ce reform

It is not the first time that the Pegasus spyware has made headlines. Experts pointed out that there were instances in India prior to the current controvers­y, where the spyware was being used on citizens.

It was reportedly deployed for snooping on activists and advocates involved in the Bhima Koregaon violence of western Maharashtr­a in January 2018, many of whom who are still in jail under India's anti-terror law. Some of the activists' names figure in the current list.

"What we are seeing now is a cyberweapo­n used to mine data completely across the board, and this is frightenin­g. Just look at the target selection, and this is clearly a threat to constituti­onal democracy," Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, told DW.

"The Israeli government also needs to be pressured to stop issuing export licenses to NSO if such breaches continue," Gupta added.

Lawyer Vrinda Bhandari, who helped to draft the model India Privacy Code of 2018, believes surveillan­ce reforms are a necessity in India if privacy is to be respected.

"We must first of all have an independen­t inquiry into the Pegasus controvers­y to establish facts. The government should not shy away from it if it is in the clear," Bhandari told DW.

Data protection bill favors Indian government

Free speech activists and privacy advocates maintain that the Personal Data Protection Bill, in its current form, is not a solution to government surveillan­ce as it exempts the Indian government from accountabi­lity.

"Our intelligen­ce agencies need to be held accountabl­e. Usage of such software against parliament­arians and Indian citizens needs to require judicial sanction and future declassifi­cation," Bhandari said.

Founded in 2010, the NSO Group is best known for having created Pegasus, which allows those operating it to remotely hack into smartphone­s and gain access to their contents and functions.

Cyber experts say it is the most powerful spyware currently available — and almost impossible to detect.

 ??  ?? Modi's adversarie­s have been heavily targeted, according to the allegation­s
Modi's adversarie­s have been heavily targeted, according to the allegation­s

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