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Bhima Koregaon: NIA seeks permission to hand over phones of 7 accused to Pegasus Committee

Activist Rona Wilson’s phone was found to be infected by the spyware; SC appointed Committee probing charges

Sabrangindia 08 Feb 2022

NIA

In fresh developments in the Bhima Koregaon case, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has sought permission from the Special NIA Court to hand over the phones of seven activists accused in the Bhima Koregaon case to the an independent expert committee constituted by the Supreme Court to probe the Pegasus scandal.

The seven activists whose phones the NIA wants examined are: Anand Teltumbde, Hany Babu, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Sudha Bharadwaj and Vernon Gonsalves. Of these, only Bharadwaj is out on bail. Meanwhile it was Wilson whose phone was revealed to have been infected with Pegasus as per the findings of Arsenal, a US-based digital forensics firm.

Together these seven people have 26 devices that were seized, first by the Pune Police and then by the NIA, which is why they could not offer the devices to the Committee themselves. Following this, the Committee wrote to the NIA in January seeking the devices to make copies of them and then examine them, reported Bar&Bench. This prompted the NIA to seek the special court’s permission.

The Pegasus scandal has been heating up especially in wake of multiple revelations by Washington Post and New York Times. It was Washington Post that had originally broke the story in December 2021 that an analysis by the Amnesty International’s Security Lab revealed that two backups of an iPhone 6 belonging to Wilson had “digital traces showing infection by the Pegasus surveillance tool”, something that by Pegasus’s own admission was licenced only to vetted governments. The phone backups were shared with the Amnesty team by Arsenal Consulting, a digital forensics firm that had upon request from Wilson’s defence team examined digital copies of his laptop and phones, and revealed that they had been infected by a malware that allowed for planting of false evidence on his devices.

In fact, this was the second time Arsenal had taken a closer look at Rona Wilson’s phone. In February 2021, the digital forensics firm, upon being approached by Wilson’s legal team, had analysed an electronic copy of activist Rona Wilson’s laptop and arrived at the conclusion that an attacker used malware to infiltrate the laptop and place incriminating evidence on it. According to Arsenal’s report, “Rona Wilson’s computer was compromised for just over 22 months.” They also found, “The attacker responsible for compromising Mr. Wilson’s computer had extensive resources (including time) and it is obvious that their primary goals were surveillance and incriminating document delivery.”

But there was another chilling revelation, “Arsenal has connected the same attacker to a significant malware infrastructure which has been deployed over the course of approximately four years to not only attack and compromise Mr. Wilson’s computer for 22 months, but to attack his co-defendants in the Bhima Koregaon case and defendants in other high-profile cases as well.”

On an eerie note, Arsenal conceded, “This is one of the most serious cases involving evidence tampering that Arsenal has ever encountered, based on various metrics which include the vast time span between the delivery of the first and the last incriminating documents.”

The Arsenal report then went on to explain just how the carefully planned malware attack was carried out. Wilson received an email from someone using his fellow activist Varavara Rao’s email account. This person sent Wilson the malware in a document asking him to open it. Wilson thought he was just clicking a dropbox link, but it was just a series of steps by which NetWire was installed on his computer. 

It is noteworthy that in wake of these findings not only Wilson, but another Bhima Koregaon accused Sudha Bharadwaj has demanded that an investigation be conducted to ascertain Arsenal’s claims.

But the NIA dismissed Arsenal’s findings, and instead of probing further, called into question the locus of Arsenal in offering opinion in the Bhima Koregaon case!

Then came the shocker from NYT that exposed earlier this month how the Government of India had purchased the Pegasus software as part of a package included in a $2 billion defence deal with Israel in 2017.

SabrangIndia had reported earlier on how the government of India had given a series of non-answers and engaged in elaborate deflective tactics, all on the pretext of national security concerns ever since the scandal was first reported by French organisation Forbidden Stories in association with several global partners including The Wire in India. Their investigation revealed that the phones and other electronic devices of several Indian politicians, activists and journalists, had been placed under surveillance using the Pegasus spyware. Many of the people on the list voluntarily had their devices tested to get confirmation, following which the story broke and generated public debate and outrage.

In late July and early August 2021, after a Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament and a few journalists, all targetted by the spyware moved Supreme Court, the Centre that had been hitherto avoiding making any formal statements, finally made its first official comment on the matter in response to a question raised in Parliament.

The written response provided on August 9, by Ajay Bhatt, Minister of State in the Ministry of Defence, said, “Ministry of Defence has not had any transaction with NSO Group Technologies.” This is significant because NSO, the Israeli manufacturer of the spyware that was used to snoop on as many as 300 Indians including journalists, activists and dissenters, only engages in transactions with “vetted governments”. This is also significant now in wake of NYT’s revelations that the software was bought as part of a package during a defense deal with the government of Israel, which means GoI’s carefully worded submission in the Parliament was nothing but a clever non-denial.

Interestingly, when the Supreme Court issued notice to the Centre in the matter, the Centre actually refused to disclose any information and did not file a detailed affidavit as asked for by the court, citing “national security” concerns. Interestingly, the SC had come down heavily on the government for offering this defence for not making formal submissions in the case.

 

Related:

Pegasus scandal: Did GoI engage in an elaborate cover-up?

Pegasus scandal: SC stays Justice Lokur Commission probe

Defence Ministry has had no transaction with Pegasus developer NSO Group: Centre in RS

Centre refuses to disclose use of Pegasus in affidavit, pleads national security

Pegasus Project: 5 targeted journalists move SC, say have been subject to intrusive hacking

Pegasus Snoopgate: RS MP, Journalists move SC for court monitored probe   

Bhima Koregaon: NIA seeks permission to hand over phones of 7 accused to Pegasus Committee

Activist Rona Wilson’s phone was found to be infected by the spyware; SC appointed Committee probing charges

NIA

In fresh developments in the Bhima Koregaon case, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has sought permission from the Special NIA Court to hand over the phones of seven activists accused in the Bhima Koregaon case to the an independent expert committee constituted by the Supreme Court to probe the Pegasus scandal.

The seven activists whose phones the NIA wants examined are: Anand Teltumbde, Hany Babu, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Sudha Bharadwaj and Vernon Gonsalves. Of these, only Bharadwaj is out on bail. Meanwhile it was Wilson whose phone was revealed to have been infected with Pegasus as per the findings of Arsenal, a US-based digital forensics firm.

Together these seven people have 26 devices that were seized, first by the Pune Police and then by the NIA, which is why they could not offer the devices to the Committee themselves. Following this, the Committee wrote to the NIA in January seeking the devices to make copies of them and then examine them, reported Bar&Bench. This prompted the NIA to seek the special court’s permission.

The Pegasus scandal has been heating up especially in wake of multiple revelations by Washington Post and New York Times. It was Washington Post that had originally broke the story in December 2021 that an analysis by the Amnesty International’s Security Lab revealed that two backups of an iPhone 6 belonging to Wilson had “digital traces showing infection by the Pegasus surveillance tool”, something that by Pegasus’s own admission was licenced only to vetted governments. The phone backups were shared with the Amnesty team by Arsenal Consulting, a digital forensics firm that had upon request from Wilson’s defence team examined digital copies of his laptop and phones, and revealed that they had been infected by a malware that allowed for planting of false evidence on his devices.

In fact, this was the second time Arsenal had taken a closer look at Rona Wilson’s phone. In February 2021, the digital forensics firm, upon being approached by Wilson’s legal team, had analysed an electronic copy of activist Rona Wilson’s laptop and arrived at the conclusion that an attacker used malware to infiltrate the laptop and place incriminating evidence on it. According to Arsenal’s report, “Rona Wilson’s computer was compromised for just over 22 months.” They also found, “The attacker responsible for compromising Mr. Wilson’s computer had extensive resources (including time) and it is obvious that their primary goals were surveillance and incriminating document delivery.”

But there was another chilling revelation, “Arsenal has connected the same attacker to a significant malware infrastructure which has been deployed over the course of approximately four years to not only attack and compromise Mr. Wilson’s computer for 22 months, but to attack his co-defendants in the Bhima Koregaon case and defendants in other high-profile cases as well.”

On an eerie note, Arsenal conceded, “This is one of the most serious cases involving evidence tampering that Arsenal has ever encountered, based on various metrics which include the vast time span between the delivery of the first and the last incriminating documents.”

The Arsenal report then went on to explain just how the carefully planned malware attack was carried out. Wilson received an email from someone using his fellow activist Varavara Rao’s email account. This person sent Wilson the malware in a document asking him to open it. Wilson thought he was just clicking a dropbox link, but it was just a series of steps by which NetWire was installed on his computer. 

It is noteworthy that in wake of these findings not only Wilson, but another Bhima Koregaon accused Sudha Bharadwaj has demanded that an investigation be conducted to ascertain Arsenal’s claims.

But the NIA dismissed Arsenal’s findings, and instead of probing further, called into question the locus of Arsenal in offering opinion in the Bhima Koregaon case!

Then came the shocker from NYT that exposed earlier this month how the Government of India had purchased the Pegasus software as part of a package included in a $2 billion defence deal with Israel in 2017.

SabrangIndia had reported earlier on how the government of India had given a series of non-answers and engaged in elaborate deflective tactics, all on the pretext of national security concerns ever since the scandal was first reported by French organisation Forbidden Stories in association with several global partners including The Wire in India. Their investigation revealed that the phones and other electronic devices of several Indian politicians, activists and journalists, had been placed under surveillance using the Pegasus spyware. Many of the people on the list voluntarily had their devices tested to get confirmation, following which the story broke and generated public debate and outrage.

In late July and early August 2021, after a Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament and a few journalists, all targetted by the spyware moved Supreme Court, the Centre that had been hitherto avoiding making any formal statements, finally made its first official comment on the matter in response to a question raised in Parliament.

The written response provided on August 9, by Ajay Bhatt, Minister of State in the Ministry of Defence, said, “Ministry of Defence has not had any transaction with NSO Group Technologies.” This is significant because NSO, the Israeli manufacturer of the spyware that was used to snoop on as many as 300 Indians including journalists, activists and dissenters, only engages in transactions with “vetted governments”. This is also significant now in wake of NYT’s revelations that the software was bought as part of a package during a defense deal with the government of Israel, which means GoI’s carefully worded submission in the Parliament was nothing but a clever non-denial.

Interestingly, when the Supreme Court issued notice to the Centre in the matter, the Centre actually refused to disclose any information and did not file a detailed affidavit as asked for by the court, citing “national security” concerns. Interestingly, the SC had come down heavily on the government for offering this defence for not making formal submissions in the case.

 

Related:

Pegasus scandal: Did GoI engage in an elaborate cover-up?

Pegasus scandal: SC stays Justice Lokur Commission probe

Defence Ministry has had no transaction with Pegasus developer NSO Group: Centre in RS

Centre refuses to disclose use of Pegasus in affidavit, pleads national security

Pegasus Project: 5 targeted journalists move SC, say have been subject to intrusive hacking

Pegasus Snoopgate: RS MP, Journalists move SC for court monitored probe   

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