In a shocking revelation reported by The Wire and other significant publications, the phone numbers of Indian ministers, opposition leaders and journalists have been found on a database of potential targets for surveillance hacking that used Israeli spyware ‘Pegasus’. The Israeli company sells Pegasus, NSO Group, which says it only offers its spyware to “vetted governments.”
The numbers of those in the leaked database include over 40 journalists and include the numbers of journalists at major media houses like the Hindustan Times, including executive editor Shishir Gupta, India Today, Network18, The Hindu and Indian Express, The Wire reported.
The Pegasus Project, a group of news organisations that analysed this list, has reason to believe that the data indicate potential targets identified in advance of surveillance attempts, The Wire reported.
According to The Wire reports, The presence of a phone number in the data alone does not reveal whether a device was infected with Pegasus or subject to an attempted hack – technical examination of the phone’s data is required for that.
Independent digital forensic analysis conducted on 10 Indian phones whose numbers were present in the data showed signs of either an attempted or successful Pegasus hack.
The France-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International first had access to the leaked list, which they shared with The Wire and 15 other news organisations worldwide as part of a lengthy collaborative investigation called the Pegasus Project.
“Working together, these news organisations – which include The Guardian, The Washington Post, Le Monde and Suddeutsche Zeitung – were able to independently identify the owners of over 1,571 numbers across at least ten countries, and forensically examine a small cross-section of phones associated with these numbers to test for the presence of Pegasus”, The Wire reported.
The Israeli company, NSO Group, which sells Pegasus, denied the allegations. The company statement read, “The report by Forbidden Stories is full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability and interests of the sources. Their sources have supplied them with information which has no factual basis, as evident by the lack of supporting documentation for many of their claims.”
NSO Group further added that the allegations are outrageous and far from reality, and they are considering filing a defamation suit.
The Indian Government also denied involvement in the hacking, saying, “The allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people have no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever.”
The government statement read, “India is a robust democracy that is committed to ensuring the right to privacy to all its citizens as a fundamental right. In furtherance of this commitment, it has also introduced the personal data protection bill, 2019 and the IT Rules 2021 to protect individuals’ data and empower users of social media platforms. Similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp by the Indian State in the past. Those reports also had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including WhatsApp in the Supreme Court.”