Rahul Gandhi
At least two mobile numbers belonging to Rahul Gandhi, India's leading opposition leader, appear in the Pegasus data Image Credit: ANI

On July 18, The Wire revealed names of journalists, politicians and activists who might have been snooped upon through a dangerous spyware named Pegasus.

From India’s principal opposition leader Rahul Gandhi to the new IT minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, several top names have appeared in the sensational list.

Some have dubbed it as India’s Watergate moment.

The Wire is a part of the consortium of 17 global news organisations who have analysed the list containing 50,000 cell phone numbers, which were allegedly under surveillance using the Pegasus.

The list, allegedly belonging to the NSO Group, was originally accessed by Amnesty International and French based media outlet, Forbidden Stories. However it is now being disputed as Amnesty claims 'The list (is) indicative of interests of the company's (NSO) clients.' NSO stoutly denies the ownership of the list.

The Wire’s co-founder and senior journalist M.K.Venu told Gulf News, “We have 300 verified names and numbers of Indians who are on the list. Many of them refused to give access to their cell phones for testing. We have tested 13 iPhones and in 10 phones traces of Pegasus were found.”

The Wire’s founder-editor Siddharth Varadarajan and Venu’s names are on the list too. When I called Venu for this story he sent message, “My phone may still be infected. (Talk) at your risk.”

Opposition up in arms

The fear and panic is so real in Indian political and media circles that Mamata Banerjee, Chief minister of West Bengal, recently displayed her phone with a taped camera lens. “The trust has gone,” she declared.

Experts claim that Pegasus is modular malware. It can be installed even by a missed call. Just like how the AK-47 rifle works mercilessly in a rugged battle-field, Pegasus works in the cyber war.

Nikhil Pahwa, a leading activist of India’s internet freedom told Gulf News, “This kind of surveillance is difficult to stop or detect. Problem with the cyber-attacks is 100% attribution is next to impossible. Plausible deniability is in-built in it. We urgently need checks and balances.”

When the Pegasus story broke worldwide, there was palpable tension in New Delhi.

The Wire itself was treading quite cautiously in presenting its story. Also, unlike the Neera Radia tapes, which contained shocking details of underbelly of the world of political fixers, this expose couldn’t catch popular imagination instantly because it had only cell phone numbers and names to indirectly infer that they were – probably – snooped upon.

In addition, there was no demonstrative data at all that could percolate down at the mass level. In a story concerning national security, democracy and citizen's privacy, lots of grey areas exist.

Importantly no one knows if at all the phones on the politically suggestive list were hacked then what was the return track and on which servers data got collected.

The Wire guardedly added that “the data is indicative of potential targets” and “technical examination of the phone’s data is needed” to prove hacking.

When asked what is the evidence that this list of telephone numbers belongs to the NSO -- which sells Pegasus -- Venu said while quoting NSO's legal rejoinder to Forbidden Stories, "NSO has told Forbidden Stories in a legal rejoinder that, “First, (NSO claims) Forbidden Stories apparently misinterpreted and mischaracterised crucial source data on which it relied. In its July 11 email, Forbidden Stories stated that its “research is based on records of thousands of phone numbers that were selected as targets by NSO Group’s clients.”

NSO Group has good reason to believe that this list of “thousands of phone numbers” is not a list of numbers targeted by governments using Pegasus, but instead, may be part of a larger list of numbers that might have been used by NSO Group customers for 'other purposes.’

Venu says read the last sentence ‘for other purposes.’  I can’t say anything more.

Public opinion divided

India is once more likely to be divided on one more issue. The Wire is a well-known secular-liberal site having strong ideological tilt against the government. Many rightwing nationalists may find it easier to dismiss the allegation as “motivated propaganda" as Amnesty is behind the project. 

Amit Shah, Home Minister said that, “People have often associated this phrase with me in lighter vein but today I want to seriously say - the timing of the selective leaks, the disruptions…Aap Chronology Samajhiye! This is a report by the disrupters for the obstructers. Disrupters are global organisations, which 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.”

In a twist, Pravin Togadia, former International Working President of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), whose name is also on the list demanded that this is the issue of breach of national security and it should be investigated how Amnesty got the list.

Generally, Indian public have tolerated spying for the purpose of national security. It rather supports the government’s moves perceived to strengthen internal and external security.

The Wire report clearly said, “In the absence of forensics, it is not possible to conclusively establish whether Pegasus was deployed against Rahul 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.”

Rahul or any of his team members were unable to submit their phones for testing. One BJP minister told Gulf News, “Who will believe that their phones were lost? You want the government to institute an inquiry. But what will you inquire into if Rahul Gandhi were to say the “evidence” is lost?”

Another BJP minister noted, “In less than 24 hours since Rahul Gandhi’s name started doing rounds, his own leader Mallikarjun Kharge kick started the debate on COVID-19 in the parliament. Don’t you understand the mood of the people? People have more serious priorities.”

Notwithstanding BJP’s defences, the Indian opposition is demanding the highest level inquiry.

While it may be a tad premature to speculate anything since the story is still unfolding, it appears that the BJP government in India may not find it easy to escape accountability on the serious allegation of surveillance of citizens.