Once again the Pegasus spyware is back in the news. But this time around, a consortium of news organisations has revealed that nearly 50,000 phone numbers of select individuals as potential targets for snooping using the Pegasus spyware.
The phone database of individuals from 50 different countries, was possibly of interest to clients of NSO Group – the company that sells the Pegasus spyware were shared with these news outlets.
The Pegasus Project
Forbidden Stories – a Paris based journalism non-profit and Amnesty International worked together on a secret investigation called the Pegasus Project. Following their investigation, they were able to access a database of 50,000 phone numbers of select individuals worldwide believed to be spied and monitored by NSO Group’s clients using the Pegasus spyware.
Among them, were the more than 1000 phone numbers of Indians that may have been the potential interest to clients for potential snooping. Many of these phone numbers were identified belonging to journalists, businessmen, government officers, politicians, activists, ministers and current members of parliaments (MPs) and other individuals.
A Political Backlash
After an Indian news outlet The Wire, part of the consortium published the expose on Sunday, it triggered a major political debate across India early this week. India’s political parties, news media and human rights groups have questioned the BJP government’s constitutional authority. The opposition alleged that government’s involvement in snooping on Indian citizens.
Since then the Narendra Modi led BJP government facing a major political backlash from the opposition and media over snooping allegations. The parliament session on its first two days of the monsoon session this week had several disruptions in the proceeding and was adjourned till July 22.
Home Minister Amit Shah has termed the Pegasus Project report publishers as disrupters. The report was timed to help the obstructers in the parliament monsoon session, Shah said.
Shah reportedly said on Monday that disrupters are the global organisations that do not like India to progress. Obstructers are political players in India who do not want India to progress. People of India are very good at understanding this chronology and connection.
The Modi government is yet to come out cleanly against the allegations of its role in surveillance and spying on Indians. But at first, why the Indian government is finding itself in these snooping revelations?
Because the NSO Group exclusively sells its Pegasus spyware to only to governments and its agencies to help them fight terrorism and criminal activities. And that potentially establishes the link between the NSO Group and the Indian government as its client.
Perhaps, that’s why more than 1000 phone numbers from India surfaced in the leaked phone database shared with news outlets.
Some Questions For The Modi Government
If the Modi government is not involved in such wrongdoing, hypothetically. But still, some questions need substantial answers to resolve the mystery of this illegal surveillance of Indians.
Interestingly, the phone numbers of the Modi government’s two serving ministers Ashwini Vaishnaw and Prahlad Singh Patel are among leaked phone numbers from India. They were on the list of NSO Group’s clients interest as potential targets for surveillance.
The newly appointed IT and Railways minister Vaishnaw reportedly told the parliament on Monday that media expose was an attempt to malign Indian democracy and its established institutions. Comparing it with similar allegations in the past, Vaishnaw said that there’s no factual basis to these and have been categorically denied.
He even refuted the allegations of any form of illegal surveillance and stressed that it is not possible with the checks and balances in Indian laws and robust institutions. However, the minister is yet to clarify whether the government has purchased the malicious spyware or not?
In recent months, the Indian government succeeded in enforcing social media giants like Facebook and Twitter to comply with the new IT laws of the country.
So will the Indian government also take legal course against the NSO Group and summon the company officials for a formal inquiry? Probably, that would depend on the Indian government’s intention and sincerity but that is highly unlikely to happen.
While the Indian government is in denial of its involvement in surveillance on Indians, the NSO Group has questioned the reliability of the report published by Forbidden Stories.
The report, according to the NSO Group is full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability and interests of the sources. “It seems like the “unidentified sources” have supplied information that has no factual basis and are far from reality,” said the company in a statement.
The Pegasus Spyware Expose And Parliament’s Monsoon Session
And this doesn’t bring an end to the Pegasus spyware issue nor the Modi government gets clean chit against the snooping allegations. But as far as the Indian government is concerned it can certainly expect the ongoing monsoon session to be very stormy with regular walkouts, disruptions of proceedings and adjournments of parliament.
This simply means the monsoon session may end up being less productive, incurring huge financial loss to the nation’s exchequer. According to a report, disruption of parliament in 2017 caused a loss of Rs 144 crore loss or Rs2.5 lakh per minute to the exchequer.
However that was four years ago, so obviously there will be a substantial increase in running the parliament and loss in 2021 could be far more than in 2017.