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

In wake of the NYT revelations and growing outrage, the Surveillance State has some tough questions to answer

Sabrangindia 02 Feb 2022

Pegasus scandal

Indians, particularly journalists, privacy activists and civil society have been up in arms ever since the New York Times revealed that the Government of India had purchased Pegasus, the software used to spy on many a dissident, way back in 2017. This was part of a package included in a $2 billion defence deal with Israel. Does that mean the government has been willfully gaslighting its own citizens all this while?

What did the NYT report say?

The report titled The Battle for the World’s Most Powerful Cyberweapon that covers the many instances of how various governments have misused the software to spy on dissenters, mentions India too. It says, “Though the Israeli government’s oversight was meant to prevent the powerful spyware from being used in repressive ways, Pegasus has been sold to Poland, Hungary and India, despite those countries’ questionable records on human rights.”

It further elaborates, “In July 2017, Narendra Modi, who won office on a platform of Hindu nationalism, became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. For decades, India had maintained a policy of what it called “commitment to the Palestinian cause,” and relations with Israel were frosty. The Modi visit, however, was notably cordial, complete with a carefully staged moment of him and Prime Minister Netanyahu walking together barefoot on a local beach. They had reason for the warm feelings. Their countries had agreed on the sale of a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear worth roughly $2 billion — with Pegasus and a missile system as the centerpieces. Months later, Netanyahu made a rare state visit to India. And in June 2019, India voted in support of Israel at the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council to deny observer status to a Palestinian human rights organization, a first for the nation.”

Journalists’ Unions raise concerns about ramifications

On February 1, 2022, the National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ) and Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) issued a joint statement expressing “deep concern at the wider ramifications of the Pegasus deal not only for freedom of the press and independent journalism but also the sovereignty and integrity of the country.” They said, “We note that a secret deal seems to have been entered into, at the highest level between India and Israel, which could have wide implications for India’s foreign policy and in particular its espousal of the Palestinian cause.”

Highlighting the government’s series of non-answers in the subject, they further said, “The Indian government has so far been evasive in all its replies to questions about whether it has bought and deployed the Pegasus spyware.” It also warns about the government’s wider agenda saying, “In India, the alleged use of Pegasus to target and spy upon journalists suggests that this is yet another move to ensure a compliant media and pave the way towards state sponsored journalism.”

Did GoI willfully gaslight us all?

While the revelation that the government did indeed purchase Pegasus did not come as a shock, given how NSO, the Israeli company that manufactures the software, had made it clear that the software can only be purchased by “vetted governments”, what did come as a shock was the impunity with which the Government of India gaslighted its own citizens about purchasing the software!

SabrangIndia had reported earlier on how the government of India was still busy dodging questions about the scandal by giving a series of non-answers and engaging 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.

Caught in the act?

A lot has happened since news of the Pegasus scandal first broke. In December 2021, Washington Post revealed that activist Rona Wilson, who has been implicated in the Bhima Koregaon case with many other fellow human rights defenders, was also a victim of the Pegasus spyware. According to WaPo, 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.

Responding to a query by WaPo, NSO group said that the allegations raised in the inquiry “were not clear”, but also added on a rather chilling note, “Once a democratic country lawfully, following due process, uses tools to investigate a person suspected in an attempt to overthrow a (democratically elected) government, this would not be considered a misuse of such tools by any means.”

This discovery is likely to play a significant role in the cases against not just Wilson, but also others implicated in the Bhima Koregaon case, where one of the 16 accused, namely Fr. Stan Swamy has already passed away, and only Sudha Bharadwaj has been let out of jail on default bail.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has set up an independent expert committee to look into allegations of the use of the Pegasus spyware for targeted surveillance. However, it stayed a probe being conducted into the Pegasus spyware scandal by a Commission led by (Retd) Justice Madan Lokur for the West Bengal Government. The SC was disappointed that a parallel probe was taking place even though the SC ordered the formation of a three-member technical Committee to conduct a probe.

Related:

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   

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

In wake of the NYT revelations and growing outrage, the Surveillance State has some tough questions to answer

Pegasus scandal

Indians, particularly journalists, privacy activists and civil society have been up in arms ever since the New York Times revealed that the Government of India had purchased Pegasus, the software used to spy on many a dissident, way back in 2017. This was part of a package included in a $2 billion defence deal with Israel. Does that mean the government has been willfully gaslighting its own citizens all this while?

What did the NYT report say?

The report titled The Battle for the World’s Most Powerful Cyberweapon that covers the many instances of how various governments have misused the software to spy on dissenters, mentions India too. It says, “Though the Israeli government’s oversight was meant to prevent the powerful spyware from being used in repressive ways, Pegasus has been sold to Poland, Hungary and India, despite those countries’ questionable records on human rights.”

It further elaborates, “In July 2017, Narendra Modi, who won office on a platform of Hindu nationalism, became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. For decades, India had maintained a policy of what it called “commitment to the Palestinian cause,” and relations with Israel were frosty. The Modi visit, however, was notably cordial, complete with a carefully staged moment of him and Prime Minister Netanyahu walking together barefoot on a local beach. They had reason for the warm feelings. Their countries had agreed on the sale of a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear worth roughly $2 billion — with Pegasus and a missile system as the centerpieces. Months later, Netanyahu made a rare state visit to India. And in June 2019, India voted in support of Israel at the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council to deny observer status to a Palestinian human rights organization, a first for the nation.”

Journalists’ Unions raise concerns about ramifications

On February 1, 2022, the National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ) and Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) issued a joint statement expressing “deep concern at the wider ramifications of the Pegasus deal not only for freedom of the press and independent journalism but also the sovereignty and integrity of the country.” They said, “We note that a secret deal seems to have been entered into, at the highest level between India and Israel, which could have wide implications for India’s foreign policy and in particular its espousal of the Palestinian cause.”

Highlighting the government’s series of non-answers in the subject, they further said, “The Indian government has so far been evasive in all its replies to questions about whether it has bought and deployed the Pegasus spyware.” It also warns about the government’s wider agenda saying, “In India, the alleged use of Pegasus to target and spy upon journalists suggests that this is yet another move to ensure a compliant media and pave the way towards state sponsored journalism.”

Did GoI willfully gaslight us all?

While the revelation that the government did indeed purchase Pegasus did not come as a shock, given how NSO, the Israeli company that manufactures the software, had made it clear that the software can only be purchased by “vetted governments”, what did come as a shock was the impunity with which the Government of India gaslighted its own citizens about purchasing the software!

SabrangIndia had reported earlier on how the government of India was still busy dodging questions about the scandal by giving a series of non-answers and engaging 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.

Caught in the act?

A lot has happened since news of the Pegasus scandal first broke. In December 2021, Washington Post revealed that activist Rona Wilson, who has been implicated in the Bhima Koregaon case with many other fellow human rights defenders, was also a victim of the Pegasus spyware. According to WaPo, 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.

Responding to a query by WaPo, NSO group said that the allegations raised in the inquiry “were not clear”, but also added on a rather chilling note, “Once a democratic country lawfully, following due process, uses tools to investigate a person suspected in an attempt to overthrow a (democratically elected) government, this would not be considered a misuse of such tools by any means.”

This discovery is likely to play a significant role in the cases against not just Wilson, but also others implicated in the Bhima Koregaon case, where one of the 16 accused, namely Fr. Stan Swamy has already passed away, and only Sudha Bharadwaj has been let out of jail on default bail.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has set up an independent expert committee to look into allegations of the use of the Pegasus spyware for targeted surveillance. However, it stayed a probe being conducted into the Pegasus spyware scandal by a Commission led by (Retd) Justice Madan Lokur for the West Bengal Government. The SC was disappointed that a parallel probe was taking place even though the SC ordered the formation of a three-member technical Committee to conduct a probe.

Related:

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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