New Delhi (AFP)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s main political rival, Rahul Gandhi, is among dozens of Indian politicians, journalists, activists and government critics who have been identified as potential targets of Israeli-made spyware , the media reported on Monday.
More than 1,000 phone numbers in India were among tens of thousands around the world selected as of interest to customers of NSO Group, maker of Pegasus spyware, according to a media group. The leaked list was shared with the media by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based non-profit journalism organization, and Amnesty International.
The identities behind around 300 of India’s phone numbers have been verified by the media.
They include a woman who made sexual harassment allegations against the former Indian chief justice, as well as Tibetan Buddhist clerics, Pakistani diplomats and Chinese journalists, according to reports.
At least two employees of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based in India, including a U.S. citizen, have also been identified, as well as the Foundation’s Indian operations director Bill and Melinda Gates, media reported.
It is not known how many phones on the list were actually targeted for surveillance or how many attempts were successful, according to the Washington Post, which was part of the collaborative investigation.
Forensic analyzes carried out on 22 smartphones in India whose numbers were on the list showed that 10 were targeted by Pegasus, seven of them successfully, according to the newspaper.
Analysis of Indian phone numbers strongly indicates that Indian government intelligence agencies were behind the selection, the Guardian reported.
According to Indian news site The Wire, growing forensic evidence of phone infections in India suggests that one or more official agencies used spyware to hack smartphones.
– ‘No concrete basis’ –
Critics say the world’s largest democracy has grown increasingly authoritarian under Prime Minister Modi, with the government accused of seeking to silence dissent. He denies this.
The Indian government reiterated in a statement to the Washington Post that “allegations of government surveillance of specific individuals have no concrete basis or truth associated with it.”
One of those identified as a potential surveillance target in 2017 was Ashwini Vaishnaw, India’s new electronics and information technology minister, the reports added.
Vaishnaw told parliament on Monday that there was “no substance” in the reports.
“Any form of illegal surveillance is not possible because of our checks and balances in our laws and our strong institutions,” Vaishnaw said.
Home Secretary Amit Shah said the reports aimed to “humiliate India on the world stage, peddle the same old narratives about our nation and derail India’s development trajectory.”
Gandhi, of the main opposition party in Congress, told the Guardian that if the allegations were correct, it was “an attack on the democratic foundations of our country.”
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a freelance journalist, said Amnesty International’s digital lab informed him that his phone was “compromised” in March, April and May 2018.
“It also puts my sources at risk. People who speak to you on condition of anonymity, if they are compromised, it’s terrible, ”he told AFP. “It’s bad for democracy, it’s bad for journalism. It is terrible. “
NSO, which says it only allows Pegasus to governments, called the claims false and denied any wrongdoing.
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