Pegasus spyware controversy: The story so far (a timeline of events)

Pegasus spyware controversy: The story so far (a timeline of events)

FPJ Web DeskUpdated: Sunday, July 25, 2021, 11:27 PM IST
This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israels NSO Group which features Pegasus spyware, on display in Paris on July 21, 2021. - Private Israeli firm NSO Group has denied media reports its Pegasus software is linked to the mass surveillance of journalists and rights defenders, and insisted that all sales of its technology are approved by Israels defence ministry. | (Photo by AFP)

On Sunday (June 18) evening, The Wire reported that the phone numbers of over 40 Indian journalists were on a hacking list of an unidentified agency using Israeli spyware Pegasus. The report said forensic tests have confirmed the presence of the military-grade spyware on some devices. Those on the list of potential targets included journalists at Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Wire, The Indian Express, News18, India Today, etc, the report added.

The Wire's analysis of the data showed that most of the journalists were targetted between 2018 and 2019, in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The report further added that the NSO Group, which sells Pegasus, has claimed that it only offers its spyware to only "vetted governments". "The company refuses to make its list of customers public but the presence of Pegasus infections in India, and the range of persons that may have been selected for targetting, strongly indicate that the agency operating the spyware on Indian numbers is an official Indian one," the report said.

The report was published by The Wire in collaboration with 16 other international publications including the Washington Post, The Guardian and Le Monde, as media partners to an investigation conducted by Paris-based media non-profit organisation Forbidden Stories and rights group Amnesty International.

Meanwhile, it is important to note that a mere presence of a number on the list does not mean that the smartphone was successfully snooped upon using the spyware. It could only be concluded after conducting digital forensics on the device’s data.

Govt responds within a few minutes after the report was published:

Within a few minutes after The Wire published its report, the Centre responded and said the allegations have no concrete basis. "India is a robust democracy that is committed to ensuring the right to privacy to all its citizens as a fundamental right," the government said. "There has been no unauthorised interception by government agencies. The allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever," it added. The Govt further said the news report appears to be a fishing expedition, based on conjectures and exaggerations to malign the Indian democracy and its institutions.

Govt officials, Opposition politicians, activists part of snooping list in India: Report

Not just journalists, it was later revealed that the mobile phones of more than 300 Indians, including two union ministers, three opposition leaders and scores of business persons and activists in India have been targetted for hacking through the Israeli spyware Pegasus.

The second set of explosive revelations said the names of former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, election strategist Prashant Kishor, Mamata Banerjee's nephew Abhishek Banerjee, IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, minister of state for Jal Shakti Prahlad Singh Patel, personal secretary to Vasundhara Raje Scindia, officer on special duty (OSD) for Smriti Irani, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Pravin Togadia, and many others were among the 300 verified Indian numbers listed as potential targets for surveillance during 2017-2019 by a client of the Israel-based NSO group, reported The Wire.

Besides, phone numbers belonging to the Supreme Court staffer who accused former Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in April 2019 also found place in the list of potential snoop targets, the report added.

Reports of hacking 'false, misleading', says Israeli firm NSO Group

Amid the reports of possible hacking of phones of over 300 Indians through Pegasus spyware, the Israel-based NSO Group said the allegations on it are false and misleading. "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. It seems like the unidentified sources have supplied information that has no factual basis and are far from reality," reads the statement.

NSO Group said the reports published in this matter have no factual basis and the company is considering a defamation lawsuit. "After checking their claims, we firmly deny the false allegations made in their report. Their sources have supplied them with information that has no factual basis, as evident by the lack of supporting documentation for many of their claims. In fact, these allegations are so outrageous and far from reality, that NSO is considering a defamation lawsuit," the company said.

Reports of snooping on Indians aimed at maligning Indian democracy: IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw

Even as his name appeared on the list, IT and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw dismissed media reports on the use of Pegasus software to snoop on Indians, saying the allegations levelled just ahead of the Monsoon session of Parliament are aimed at maligning Indian democracy. In a suo motu statement in Lok Sabha, Vaishnaw said that with several checks and balances being in place, "any sort of illegal surveillance" by unauthorised persons is not possible in India.

"A highly sensational story was published by a web portal yesterday night.... The press report appeared a day before the Monsoon session of the Parliament. This cannot be a coincidence. In the past similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp. Those reports have no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties.... The press report of July 18, 2021 also appeared to be an attempt to malign the Indian democracy and a well-established institution," the minister said.

Congress demands sacking of HM Amit Shah, probe against PM Modi

Accusing the government of "treason" and compromising on national security over the Pegasus spyware issue, the Congress demanded the sacking of Home Minister Amit Shah and a probe into the "role of Prime Minister" Narendra Modi in the matter.

Addressing a press conference, Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala held Shah responsible for the Pegasus spying issue and said his party's first demand is his dismissal from the post he occupies. He said Congress will take all Opposition parties on-board over the issue and decide whether to ask for a judicial or parliamentary probes in the matter. "Our first demand is the immediate sacking of Minister of Home and Internal security Amit Shah and a probe into the role of the prime minister in the matter," he said.

Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge said Shah should immediately resign as he "does not deserve" to occupy the position he is holding.

Not a shred of evidence to link it or govt with Pegasus story: BJP

Hitting back at the Congress over its attack over the Pegasus snooping row, the BJP claimed that there is not a "shred of evidence" to link either the ruling party or the Modi dispensation with the matter.

"BJP strongly refutes, condemns the baseless & bereft of political propriety comments leveled by Congress against the BJP. It is a new low for a party that has ruled India for more than 50 years," BJP leader and former Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said in a press conference. "It is a strange situation. The company (NSO Group) is denying it (findings in Pegasus Project report) & saying that most of its products are being used by western countries but India is being targetted," he added.

'Aap Chronology Samajhiye': Amit Shah slams 'rudderless' Congress

Union Home Minister Amit Shah slammed the "rudderless Congress" after it demanded his resignation and investigation into Prime Minister Narendra Modi's role in the snooping row. "This is a report by the disrupters for the obstructers. Disrupters are 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," he said.

Shah further said he wanted to assure the people of India that the Modi government's priority is clear - 'National Welfare' - and it will keep working to achieve that no matter what happens.

Not just in India, Pegasus used around the world to snoop on more than 50,000 people in 50 countries

Reports surfaced that the military-grade Pegasus spyware from Israeli firm NSO Group has been used by governments around the world to snoop on more than 50,000 people in 50 countries. An Amnesty International probe revealed that Pegasus compromised phones and routed data through commercial services like AWS and Amazon CloudFront.

The Pegasus Project, a purported expose by 17 news organisations, showed that at least 10 governments were NSO customers. Reportedly these countries are: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The investigation by the 17 media organisations suggests widespread and continuing abuse of NSO's hacking spyware, Pegasus, which the company insists is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists.

Amazon shuts down Pegasus-owner NSO Group's infrastructure

After the massive Pegasus spyware controversy, Amazon Web Services (AWS), which is the Cloud arm of Amazon, shut down infrastructure and accounts linked to the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group.

In a statement, an AWS spokesperson said that "When we learned of this activity, we acted quickly to shut down the relevant infrastructure and accounts".

Pegasus spyware may have played role in toppling Congress-JDS govt in Karnataka in 2019

In the run up to the toppling of the Congress-JDS government in Karnataka in July 2019, the phone numbers of then Deputy Chief Minister G. Parameshwara and the personal secretaries of then Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy and former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah were selected as possible targets for surveillance, The Wire reported.

The Wire reviewed the records of the numbers that were of interest to an Indian client of Israel's NSO Group.

The records indicate that the phone numbers of some of the key political players in Karnataka appear to have been selected around the time when an intense power struggle was taking place between the BJP and JDS-Congress government in 2019, after 17 legislators belonging to the ruling alliance abruptly resigned to force a trust vote in the state Assembly.

Telephone numbers of several prominent activists part of the leaked database

The telephone numbers of several prominent activists are part of a leaked database accessed by the Pegasus Project, which include individuals confirmed to have been targetted with the spyware, The Wire reported.

The activists whose phone numbers appear in the leaked records include Ambedkarite activist Ashok Bharti; former Jawaharlal Nehru University students Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and Banjyotsna Lahiri; academic and chronicler of life in Naxal-dominated regions, Bela Bhatia; railway union leader Shiv Gopal Mishra; anti-coal mining activist Alok Shukla; Delhi University professor Saroj Giri; Bastar-based peace activist Shubhranshu Choudhary and Bihar-based activist Ipsa Shatakshi.

BJP launches nationwide counterattack over Pegasus row

The BJP fielded its senior leaders across the country including state chief ministers to blunt the Opposition attack over the Pegasus row.

BJP chief ministers including Yogi Adityanath (Uttar Pradesh), Manohar Lal Khattar (Haryana), Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Madhya Prasdesh), Himanta Biswa Sarma (Assam), Vijay Rupani (Gujarat), Jai Ram Thakur (Himachal Pradesh) and Pushkar Singh Dhami (Uttarakhand) were among those who addressed the media to hit back at the Congress and other Opposition parties which have slammed the Modi government over the snooping row.

French President Emmanuel Macron and 15 members of his government among potential targets

The cellphones of French President Emmanuel Macron and 15 members of the French government may have been among potential targets in 2019 of surveillance by spyware made by the Israel-based NSO Group, according to Le Monde's report.

The report follows an announcement by the Paris prosecutor's office that it is investigating the suspected widespread use of Pegasus spyware to target journalists, human rights activists and politicians in multiple countries.

15 heads of state on potential spyware list

French President Emmanuel Macron leads a list of 14 current or former heads of state who may have been targeted for hacking by clients of the NSO Group, Amnesty International said.

Among potential targets found on a list of 50,000 phone numbers leaked include Presidents Imran Khan of Pakistan, Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and Barham Salih of Iraq. Three current prime ministers and the king of Morocco Mohammed VI are also on the list, The Washington Post reported.

Editors Guild demands SC-monitored probe into Pegasus phone tapping allegations

Expressing shock over media reports on widespread surveillance on journalists and politicians using Pegasus spyware, the Editors Guild of India on Wednesday demanded an independent Supreme Court-monitored inquiry into the alleged snooping.

"The Editors Guild of India (EGI) is shocked by the media reports on the widespread surveillance, allegedly mounted by government agencies, on journalists, civil society activists, businessmen and politicians, using a hacking software known as Pegasus, created and developed by the Israeli company NSO," the Guild said in a statement shared on Twitter.

ULFA, AASU leaders from Assam in snoop list

Two prominent political personalities from Assam -- Samujjal Bhattacharya from AASU (All Assam Students' Union) and Anup Chetia from the pro-talks faction of ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) -- figure in the leaked list of potential spyware targets, The Wire reported.

Several NSCN leaders targetted for surveillance

The phone numbers of several top leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-Isak Muivah) were added to a list of persons of interest believed to be generated by an Indian client of Israeli spyware company NSO Group, The Wire reported.

Among the top leaders of NSCN (I-M), whose phone numbers have been found in the leaked database, are Atem Vashum, Apam Muivah, Anthony Shimray and Phunthing Shimrang, The Wire said.

Israeli Defence Ministry studying investigation into NSO Group

The Israeli Defence Ministry is studying the investigation into NSO Group, Defence Minister Benny Gantz said after it was revealed that the Israeli cyber company has been selling spyware to foreign governments to target journalists and activists, Jerusalem Post reported.

"We are aware of recent publications regarding the use of systems developed by certain Israeli cyber companies," Gantz said, without naming the Herzliya-based company.

'Enough is enough': NSO Group

In its latest statement titled 'Enough is Enough', NSO Group said it will no longer respond to media inquiries on the ongoing row. The company added it will not play along with the "vicious and slanderous campaign".

"We will state again: The list is not a list of targets or potential targets of Pegasus. The numbers in the list are not related to NSO group. Any claim that a name in the list is necessarily related to a Pegasus target or Pegasus potential target is erroneous and false," the statement read.

Plea filed in SC seeking SIT probe into Pegasus snooping allegations

A petition has been filed before the Supreme Court seeking a court-monitored probe by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) into the reports of alleged snooping by government agencies using Israeli spyware Pegasus over journalists, activists, politicians and others.

The petition, filed by advocate ML Sharma, said the Pegasus scandal was a matter of grave concern and a serious attack upon Indian democracy, judiciary and country's security and the "widespread and unaccountable" use of surveillance is "morally disfiguring".

"Privacy is not about the wish to hide, as is often asserted. It is about having a space of one's own where our thoughts and being are not the instrument of someone else's purposes. It is an essential component of dignity and agency," it said.

TMC MPs tear papers as Vaishnaw reads statement in Rajya Sabha on snooping

Opposition TMC MPs tore papers and flung them into the air, throwing the Rajya Sabha into bedlam as IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw read a statement on the alleged snooping.

TMC and other Opposition party members rushed into the well of the House as Vaishnaw was called to make a statement over the issue. They shouted slogans and tore papers that appeared to be copies of the statement that the minister was to make.

Categorically stand by findings of Pegasus Project: Amnesty International

Amnesty International said it "categorically stands" by the findings of the Pegasus Project and asserted that the data is irrefutably linked to potential targets of NSO Group's Pegasus spyware.

The comments by Amnesty International came after some media reports quoting a few Israreli journalists said that the human rights group has claimed that it never said that the recently leaked phone numbers was specifically a list of numbers targeted by Pegasus spyware.

Amnesty claimed that the "false rumours" being pushed on social media are intended to distract from the widespread unlawful targeting of journalists, activists and others that the Pegasus Project has revealed.

Pegasus snooping story "concocted, fabricated, evidence-less": BJP

The BJP claimed that the story on the alleged snooping through Pegasus is "concocted, fabricated and evidence-less" and that the reports based on it call for "defamation".

Addressing a press conference at the BJP headquarters in the national capital, she alleged that the "fake" list is like a collection of mobile numbers drawn from yellow pages and those have been used for "yellow journalism".

Dalai Lama's close aides in Pegasus project data

The phone numbers of a top ring of advisers around the Dalai Lama are believed to have been selected as those of 'people of interest' by the government clients of Israeli surveillance company NSO Group. An analysis strongly indicates that the Indian government was selecting the potential targets, The Guardian said.

Other phone numbers apparently selected by Delhi were those of the former President of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, the staff in the office of another Buddhist spiritual leader, the Gyalwang Karmapa, and several other activists and clerics who are part of the exiled community in India, the report said.

Privacy is a right that has to be respected: UNGA President-elect Abdulla Shahid

Privacy is a right protected by constitutions of all civilised countries and it has to be respected, President-elect of UN General Assembly Abdulla Shahid said, referring to concerns arising out of the Pegasus snooping row.

Industrialist Anil Ambani among potential Pegasus spyware targets

The potential targets of Israeli spyware Pegasus include industrialist Anil Ambani as well as a senior official of ADA Group, the Wire reported.

According to the report, their numbers were listed during the time when the Rafale controversy was in full swing. "A legal challenge was mounted before the Supreme Court. Media publications, both Indian and French, started asking serious questions about Dassault Aviation’s offset partners in India. And even former French President Francois Hollande’s remarks on how one particular corporate partner was chosen stirred up a storm," said the report.

Ex-CBI chief Alok Verma and other senior CBI officials on leaked snoop list

Eight phones of the then CBI director Alok Verma and his family members were put in the list of devices targeted for snooping using Pegasus spyware by an unknown Indian agency soon after he was divested of the coveted charge on October 23, 2018, The Wire reported.

Along with Verma, phones of his second-in-command Special Director Rakesh Asthana, against whom he had registered a corruption case on October 21, 2018, and the then Joint Director A K Sharma were also put on the list for surveillance using sophisticated malware, it said.

Congress organises protest marches, seeks SC-monitored probe into surveillance allegations

Congress held protest marches in different states seeking a Supreme Court-monitored probe into allegations of surveillance using Pegasus spyware.

Marches as also sit-in protests were held at Jammu, Jaipur, Kolkata, Vijayawada, Patna, Ranchi, Bengaluru, Chandigarh, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram, Raipur, Lucknow, and Dehradun.

These were led by PCC chiefs, CLP leaders, MLAs, MLCs, and party functionaries along with thousands of Congress workers and common citizens.

Pegasus is Israeli weapon, Centre used it against India: Rahul Gandhi

Attacking the Centre, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said Pegasus spyware is an Israeli classified weapon that the government has used against the institutions of the country.

"Pegasus is classified by the Israeli state as a weapon and that weapon is supposed to be used against terrorists. The Prime Minister and Home Minister have used this against the Indian state and against our institutions," said Rahul Gandhi.

"They have used it politically...They have used it in Karnataka. They have used it to scuttle probes. They have used it against Supreme Court... They have used it against all the institutions of this country. The only word for this is treason. There is no other word for this," added the Congress leader.

Israel to review allegations of misuse and licensing process

Amid the Pegasus snooping case backlash, Israel has established a committee to review the allegations of misuse of the NSO group's surveillance software and hinted at a possible "review of the whole matter of giving licences".

"The defence establishment appointed a review committee made up of a number of bodies," lawmaker Ram Ben-Barak, the head of Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, told Army Radio on Thursday.

Pakistan voices 'serious concern' over reports about India's alleged use of Pegasus spyware

Pakistan voiced "serious concern" over reports about India allegedly eavesdropping on foreigners, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, using Pegasus and urged the UN to thoroughly investigate the matter.

According to reports, Khan was a potential target of the Israeli-made Pegasus spyware programme by clients of the NSO Group cyberespionage firm.

The Foreign Office (FO) through a statement responded to the media queries related to India's alleged use of the Israeli spyware.

"We have noted with serious concern recent international media reports exposing Indian government's organised spying operations against its own citizens, foreigners as well as Prime Minister Imran Khan, using an Israeli origin spyware," the FO said.

The statement also condemned what it called "India's state-sponsored, continuing and widespread surveillance and spying operations in clear breach of global norms of responsible state behaviour".

"We are closely following these revelations and will bring the Indian abuses to the attention of appropriate global platforms," said the FO.

Pakistan also called on the relevant UN bodies to thoroughly investigate the matter, "bring the facts to light, and hold the Indian perpetrators to account".

More than 25 from Kashmir were selected as potential targets

Besides Delhi-based Kashmiri journalists and a prominent civil society activist critical of official policy towards Jammu and Kashmir, more than 25 people from the Kashmir Valley were selected as potential targets of intrusive surveillance between 2017 and mid-2019, The Wire reported,

Of these, The Wire was able to conduct forensic analysis on the phones of two-- separatist leader Bilal Lone and the late S.A.R. Geelani, who worked as a lecturer in Delhi University and died in 2018.

In addition, at least four members of Kashmir's most influential separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani's family including his son-in-law, journalist Iftikhar Gilani and his son, scientist Syed Naseem Geelani- were of consistent interest to the Indian client of the NSO group between 2017 and 2019, the report said.

The Wire said the leak also shows that the current head of the Hurriyat conference Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was a potential target of surveillance between 2017 and 2019.

Israel to examine tighter controls on export of spywares like Pegasus

An Israeli commission reviewing allegations that NSO Group's Pegasus spyware was misused by its customers to target journalists and human rights activists would examine whether rules for Israel's export of cyberweapons such as Pegasus should be tightened, a senior MP told The Guardian.

Technology use against civil society, regime critics, journalists always concerning: US on Pegasus issue

The United States said it is against the use of spying technology on civil society, regime critics, and journalists, even as it maintained that the US has no particular insight into the Pegasus issue in India.

"The whole notion of using this type of technology against civil society, or regime critics, or journalists, or anybody like that through extrajudicial means is always concerning," Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson said.

"We - I don't have any particular special insights into the India case," Thompson said when asked about the news reporters emerging from India.

"I know this is a broader issue, but I will say that we've been, I think, quite vocal about trying to find ways for companies to be able to ensure that their technology is not used in these types of ways. And we will certainly continue to press those issues," he said.

Millions sleep well at night, walk safely on streets due to technologies like Pegasus: NSO

Amidst the raging controversy over its surveillance software Pegasus, Israeli cybersecurity company NSO Group defended itself by saying that millions of people around the world sleep well at night and walk in the streets safely due to such technologies available with intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

"Millions of people around the world are sleeping well at night, and safely walking in the streets, thanks to Pegasus and similar technologies which help intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies around the world to prevent and investigate crime, terrorism, and paedophilia rings that are hiding under the umbrella of end-to-End encryption apps," a spokesperson for NSO said.

"NSO, together with many of the other cyber intelligence companies in the world, provides cyber intelligence tools for governments because law enforcement agencies around the world are in the dark and there's no regulatory solution that allows them to monitor malicious acts on instant messaging and social media", the company said.

French President Macron calls Israeli PM Bennett

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on reports that Morocco's security forces may have used the Pegasus spyware to snoop on his cellphones.

However, the Moroccan government has denied reports that the country's security forces used the spyware to eavesdrop on the French president.

(With ANI, PTI and IANS inputs)

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