Israeli firm helped hacking phones of journalists, activists in India: Report

In what can be seen as a concerted surveillance attack, phone numbers of at least 300 journalists, human right activists and others in India are reportedly found in a leaked database of thousands of telephone numbers listed by multiple government clients of an Israeli technology firm.

The leaked database was accessed by Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International and was later passed on to media houses.

In an investigative report published by The Wire and 16 media partners including Washington Post, it has been revealed that there have been clear signs that 37 phones have been targeted by the Pegasus spyware sold by Israel-based NSO Group. Of these 10 are Indian. Though the Israeli firm refuses to identify its customers, the report quoted them as saying that they are confined to “vetted governments”.

The numbers of those in the database include over 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, The Wire said in the report.

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

The Wire’s Rohini Singh took to her social media to confirm the cybersurveillance on her. “I would urge the government to stop reading my conversations and instead read my stories and try to get it’s house in order!” Singh wrote, after the news portal’s story went live.

In 2019 too, the same spyware was used to hack into the phones of 121 Indians, reports said then. Among them were Elgar Parishad accused Anand Teltumbde, Bhima Koregaon lawyer Nihal Singh Rathod,, Bastar-based human rights lawyer Bela Bhatia, jailed activist Sudha Bharadwaj’s lawyer Shalini Gera, Gadchiroli-based lawyer Jagdish Meshram and Chhattisgarh-based peace activist Shubhranshu Choudhary.

Some of them suggested that Indian government agencies may have been involved in the surveillance, as they were told by a Canada-based cyber security group that is assisting WhatsApp in investigating the spyware attack.

In their response, the government has issued a statement said, “Government of India’s response to a Right to information application about the use of Pegasus has been prominently reported by media and is in itself sufficient to counter any malicious claims about the alleged association between the government of India and Pegasus.”

For the unversed, Pegasus is a spyware developed by NSO Group, an Israeli company that specialises in what experts call cyber weapons. It first came to the limelight in 2016, when an Arab activist got suspicious after receiving a shady message. It was believed that Pegasus was targeting iPhone users. Several days after its discovery Apple released an updated version of iOS, which reportedly patched the security loophole that Pegasus was using to hack phones.