Islamabad: India was among a number of countries using an Israeli company’s spyware in attempted and successful hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials and human rights activists around the world. At least one number once used by Prime Minister Imran Khan was on the India list, according to an investigation by 17 media organisations published on Sunday.
The extent of the spyware – Pegasus – use was reported by The Washington Post, the Guardian, Le Monde and other news outlets who collaborated on an investigation into a data leak.
According to The Post, more than 1,000 phone numbers in India appeared on the surveillance list while hundreds were from Pakistan, including the one PM Imran once used. However, The Post did not specify whether the surveillance attempt on PM Imran’s number was successful.
According to media reports, 300 mobile phone numbers used in India — including those of government ministers, opposition politicians, journalists, scientists and rights activists — were on the list.
The numbers included those of more than 40 Indian journalists from major publications such as the Hindustan Times, The Hindu and the Indian Express, as well as two founding editors of The Wire, it said.
Reacting to the revelations, Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry said he was “extremely concerned” by the reports. “Unethical policies of Modi government have dangerously polarised India and the region,” he tweeted.
The Indian government denied in 2019 that it had used the malware to spy on its citizens after WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in the United States against NSO, the Israeli company producing the spyware, accusing it of using the messaging platform to conduct cyber espionage.
Israel’s NSO Group and its Pegasus malware have been in the headlines since at least 2016, when researchers accused it of helping spy on a dissident in the United Arab Emirates.
Recently revelations raise privacy and rights concerns, and reveal the far-reaching extent to which the private Israeli company’s software may be being misused by its clients internationally.
The leak was of a list of more than 50,000 smartphone numbers believed to have been identified as people of interest by clients of NSO since 2016, the media outlets said.
One of the organisations, The Washington Post, said the Pegasus spyware licensed by the NSO Group was also used to target phones belonging to two women close to Jamal Khashoggi, a Post columnist murdered at a Saudi consulate in Turkey in 2018, before and after his death.
The Post said the list was shared with the news organisations by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit, and Amnesty International. The newspaper said the total number of phones on the list that were actually targeted or surveilled was unknown. AFP