Written by: Alisha Das (Intern)
Edited by: Anubhav Yadav (Content Head & Developer)
Pegasus is spyware developed by the Israeli cyber arms company, NSO Group Technologies which is a subsidiary of Q Cyber Technologies. The malware can read text messages, track calls, gather passwords, locate the target device, access the microphone and camera, and collect information from apps. Clicking on links, using the Photos app, and using the Apple Music app are all possible vectors of infection. Pegasus uses zero-click exploits, which means that they can run without any permission from the victim. As soon as the spyware is installed, it can run arbitrary codes, collect data from apps, such as iMessage, Gmail, Viber, Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Skype, as well as extract contact info, call histories, messages, photos, and browsing history.
Even though Pegasus’s intended use is to fight crime and terrorism, it has been widely reported that authoritarian governments use it to spy on critics and opponents. Facebook sued NSO in late 2019 for allegedly using Pegasus to intercept WhatsApp conversations of activists, journalists, and bureaucrats in India. The Indian government was suspected of being involved with this.
In July 2021, Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories obtained a list of over 50,000 phone numbers believed to belong to people of interest to clients of New York-based NSO. A months-long investigation ensued after the information was shared with 17 news organisations in a project called “Project Pegasus“. According to The Wire apart from sixteen media organisations, the spyware was used to spy on heads of state, activists, journalists, and dissidents, which enabled massive human rights violations around the globe.
Among the targets of NSO hacking were ministers, opposition leaders, former election commissioners, journalists, and others. Koregaon Bhima activists were also targeted by hackers who planted malware on their computers. The database also lists eleven phone numbers linked to a female employee of the Supreme Court and her immediate family, who made allegations against the former CJI Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment, which suggests that their phones were also tapped.
Although the CEO of NSO Group categorically denied being on the list in question, he did claim that the source of the allegations was unreliable. It is fundamentally flawed to conduct an investigation based on a lack of information. He concluded that this is an attempt to construct something on vague grounds.
As of 19 July, the Central Government has denied any ‘overt allegations’ of using Pegasus Spyware for conducting any unauthorised surveillance on opposition leaders and journalists but has not confirmed or denied whether it has bought or deployed Pegasus spyware.
The Editors of Guild of India have demanded a probe be monitored by the Supreme Court of India into reports of widespread surveillance of journalists, civil society activists, businessmen, and politicians by government agencies, allegedly using Israeli spy software, Pegasus.
Advocate ML Sharma, a serial PIL litigant, has also sought a court-monitored investigation performed by a Special Investigation Team into the reports that government agencies spied on journalists, activists, politicians, etc., using the spyware, Pegasus. Mr. Sharma said he had filed a complaint at the police station, but it had not been converted into an FIR yet.
Rajya Sabha, MP John Brittas of the Communist Marxist Party of India (Marxist) has also filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking a court-monitored investigation by a Special Investigation Team.
On 26 July, Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, formed an Inquiry Commission led by Justice Madan B. Lokur, a former Supreme Court judge, and Justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya, a former Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court, to look into the allegations involving the Pegasus spyware scandal. Under the Commission of Enquiry Act, 1952, a state government can always order an inquiry. The purpose of such a commission is to aid the government in making its own decisions based on the findings. In contrast, Justice A K Ganguly, former Supreme Court judge, said that the Centre was not obligated to accept the report.
Senior journalists, including N Ram and Sashi Kumar, have also approached the Supreme Court asking for an independent inquiry conducted by a Supreme Court judge to investigate allegations that the Pegasus spyware was used unlawfully to spy on journalists, lawyers, government ministers, opposition politicians, and civil society activists. Furthermore, they requested that the Government of India or any of its agencies disclose whether or not the Government of India or any of its agencies have acquired any license(s) for Pegasus spyware, either directly or indirectly, for any purpose.
As alarming as these reports are, they should be viewed in context with NSO’s statements that it only sells its services to “vetted governments”. The fact that the Indian government has yet to issue a clear and categorical denial of Pegasus’ use makes this development murkier.