Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, poll strategist Prashant Kishor and new IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw are among the big names revealed today as potential targets of Israeli spyware ‘Pegasus’ in the latest set of explosive revelations by The Wire.
At least two mobile phone accounts used by Rahul Gandhi were among 300 verified Indian numbers listed as potential targets by an official client of the Israeli surveillance technology vendor, the NSO Group, new details emerging about the snooping episode reveal.
Gandhi’s numbers, which he has since given up, appear to have been selected for targeting from between 2018 and mid-2019, when the national elections were held. The Congress said the government was “listening to bedroom conversations” and mocked the ruling BJP as “Bharatiya Jasoos (spy) Party”.
The Pegasus targets include two current Union Ministers – Prahlad Patel and Ashwini Vaishnaw – according to media reports. Patel appears to have been a person of “particular interest” as the leaked list had phone numbers not just of him and his wife but 15 people linked to him, including his cook and gardener.
Ashiwini Vaishnaw joined Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet recently and replaced Ravi Shankar Prasad as IT Minister. He appears to have been targeted for possible surveillance in 2017, when he was neither a minister nor an MP, not even a member of the BJP.
As IT minister, Vaishnaw defended the government in parliament earlier today, saying there was “no substance” behind the sensational claims. It was “no coincidence” that the news broke a day before the start of the monsoon session of parliament, he said. He described the allegations as “over-the-top” and added there was “no substance” behind the claims.
Among the others on the list is Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee. The family members of a woman who in 2019 accused then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment were also potentially targeted. At least 11 phone numbers used by the woman, her husband and two other family members were on the list. Justice Gogoi was nominated to the Rajya Sabha last year.
Other high profile targets include Prashant Kishor, who played a big role in the BJP’s 2014 campaign strategy that catapulted PM Modi to power. Kishor has since worked with clients mostly opposed to the BJP. Recently, he was credited with helping Mamata Banerjee defeat the BJP in Bengal. Kishor’s phone was compromised as recently as July 14, according to a forensic analysis.
Another name is that of Ashok Lavasa, a former Election Commissioner who had a dissenting opinion when the powerful election body’s decided on a clean chit on poll complaints against PM Modi and Amit Shah in 2019. He even stopped attending meetings saying “minority decisions” were being “suppressed in a manner contrary to well-established conventions observed by multi-member statutory bodies”.
More than 1,000 phone numbers in India appeared on the list, according to a months-long collaborative investigation by The Wire, The Washington Post and other media partners in 10 countries. Besides key politicians, over 40 Indian journalists and a constitutional authority were also found on the database of NSO as connected to people of interest since 2016, The Wire has reported.
The Israeli company, NSO Group, which sells Pegasus, has denied the snooping allegations, claimed that it only offers its spyware to “vetted governments” and said it was “considering a defamation lawsuit”. According to The Wire, forensic tests conducted on some phones associated with the target numbers revealed clear signs of targeting by Pegasus spyware – a job made easier if the device was an Apple iPhone.
The report into the spying scandal is based on a leaked database accessed by Paris-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International that was shared with a host of publications around the world for a collaborative investigation. Most of the numbers identified in the list were geographically concentrated in 10 country clusters: India, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
With inputs from NDTV