New Delhi: While reports of opposition politicians and scores of journalists in India being targets of surveillance operations carried out with the help of Israeli Pegasus spyware stirred a storm in India on Monday, French newspaper Le Monde reported that several Delhi-based diplomats were also on the list of potential targets for phone hacking from 2017-2021.
An Israeli firm accused of supplying spyware to governments has been linked to a list of tens of thousands of smartphone numbers, including those of activists, journalists, business executives and politicians around the world, according to reports.
The NSO Group and its Pegasus malware — capable of switching on a phone’s camera or microphone, and harvesting its data — have been in the headlines since 2016.
Sunday’s revelations — part of a collaborative investigation by The Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde and other media outlets — raise privacy concerns and reveal the far-reaching extent to which the private firm’s software could be misused.
The leak consists of more than 50,000 smartphone numbers believed to have been identified as connected to people of interest by NSO clients since 2016, the news organisations said, although it was unclear how many devices were actually targeted or surveilled.
NSO has denied any wrongdoing, labelling the allegations “false”.
Last week, the Indian government — which in 2019 denied using the malware to spy on its citizens, following a lawsuit — reiterated that “allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever”.
The Post said a forensic analysis of 37 of the smartphones on the list showed there had been “attempted and successful” hacks of the devices.
At least 40 Indian journalists from across media houses were on a list of potential targets for surveillance.
According to The Wire, which published the report added that along with the 40 journalists, “three major opposition figures, one constitutional authority, two serving ministers in the Narendra Modi government, current and former heads and officials of security organisations and scores of businesspersons” were part of the list of potential or past victims.
The report was published by The Wire news portal from India as also 16 other international publications as media partners to an investigation conducted by Paris-based media non-profit organisation Forbidden Stories and rights group Amnesty International into a leaked list of more than 50,000 phone numbers from across the world that are believed to have been the target of surveillance through Pegasus software of Israeli surveillance company NSO Group.
The list of phone numbers in the Israeli spyware’s database was one that belonged to a sitting Supreme Court judge, the report said.
According to The Hindu, apart from China and Pakistan whose diplomats often remain under close watch in India, diplomats from several countries that India has very friendly ties with were also snooped.
“The numbers of [Pakistan Prime Minister] Imran Khan and several of his ambassadors in India appear on the list as potential targets. Dozens of other Delhi-based diplomats and ambassadors are also included, from Iran, Afghanistan, China, Nepal and Saudi Arabia,” the report published on Monday in Le Monde said.
Govt of India’s response: ‘Aap Chronology Samajhiye’
Under fire over media reports about the use of Pegasus spyware for surveillance of politicians and other personalities, Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Monday asserted that such reports are aimed at humiliating India.
“Disruptors and obstructers will not be able to derail India’s development trajectory through their conspiracies,” Shah said.
He also hit out at the opposition for jumping on to the Pegasus bandwagon and asked them to understand the chronology of the scandal.
“People have often associated this phrase with me in a lighter vein but today I want to seriously say – the timing of the selective leaks, the disruptions…Aap Chronology Samajhiye!” the home minister said.
Shah’s reaction came after the Congress demanded his sacking and a probe into the “role of Prime Minister” Narendra Modi in the matter.
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