Pegasus Files: Rahul Gandhi among 300 ‘potential’ spyware targets

Pegasus, Rahul Gandhi, Congress

Wayanad MP and former Congress President Rahul Gandhi was one of the dozens of “potential targets” of the Pegasus spyware that has unleashed a political storm at the highest levels in the country.

According to a report of The Wire, “At least two mobile phone accounts used by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi were among 300 verified Indian numbers listed as potential targets by an official Indian client of the Israeli surveillance technology vendor, NSO Group.”

The report further says that “such was the apparent interest in Gandhi” that the numbers of five of his social friends and acquaintances were also placed on the list of potential targets whereas none of the five plays any role in politics or public affairs.

Gandhi’s numbers, which he has since given up, are part of a large database of leaked numbers believed to be drawn up by NSO Group clients and accessed by the French media non-profit Forbidden Stories and shared with 16 news organisations, including The Wire, The Guardian, Washington Post, Le Monde, and Haaretz.

Gandhi’s phones are not among those examined as he no longer has the handsets he used at the time that his numbers appear to have been selected for targeting – from mid-2018 to mid-2019.

In the absence of forensics, it is not possible to conclusively establish whether Pegasus was deployed against Gandhi. At the same time, the presence of at least nine numbers linked to his circle – one of the larger clusters around a person of interest that the Pegasus Project has detected – suggests that his presence in the leaked database is not happenstance, The Wire said.

Gandhi told The Wire that he had received suspicious WhatsApp messages in the past – one of the known vectors for a spyware hack – and frequently changed numbers and instruments so as to make it “a little harder for them” to target him.

Apart from Gandhi’s personal phones, the numbers of two close aides, Alankar Sawai and Sachin Rao, also figure in the leaked database, for mid-2019.

Rao is a member of the Congress Working Committee whose current role involves training party cadre while Sawai is attached to Gandhi’s office and typically spends most of his working day with him. Sawai’s phone was stolen in 2019 and thus unavailable for forensic examination, while Rao said his phone from that period got “fried” and no longer switches on, the report said.

Human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers across the world have been targeted by authoritarian governments using hacking software sold by the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group, according to an investigation into a massive data leak, the Guardian reported.

The consortium’s analysis of the leaked data identified at least 10 governments believed to be NSO customers who were entering numbers into a system: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Military-grade spyware licensed by an Israeli firm to governments for tracking terrorists and criminals was used in attempted and successful hacks of 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, human rights activists, business executives, and two women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to an investigation by The Washington Post and 16 media partners.

In India, the numbers of phones belonging to hundreds of journalists, activists, opposition politicians, government officials, and business executives were on the snooping list.  The list includes three major Opposition figures, one constitutional authority, two serving ministers in the Narendra Modi government, current and former heads and officials of security organizations, and scores of businesspersons, The Wire reported.

The Wire’s analysis of the data shows that most of the above-mentioned Indian names were targeted between 2018 and 2019 – in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha general elections.

Pegasus is malware that infects iPhones and Android devices to enable operators of the tool to extract messages, photos, and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones.

Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media nonprofit organization, and Amnesty International initially had access to the leaked list and shared access with media partners as part of the Pegasus project, a reporting consortium.

(With IANS inputs)

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