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Chattisgarh govt forms committee to look into reports of NSO pitch

NSO Group Pegasus
NSO Group Pegasus

The Chattisgarh government constituted a three-member committee over the weekend to look into reports that the Israeli spyware group, NSO Group, had pitched its malware Pegasus to the Chattisgarh police 2-3  years ago. The Indian Express first reported this development.

Gaurav Dwivedi, the secretary to the chief minister, told MediaNama that this committee is not specific to NSO, but “there were some indications to this effect, that there were some presentations made, and we will [launch] an inquiry into that”. He told us that the Principal Secretary (Home), Subrat Sahoo, will head the committee and be assisted by other officers. He will be accompanied by the Raipur IG Anand Chhabda and the director of department of public relations, Taran Prakash Sinha. The IE report said that the committee would be assisted by the state DGP. “If necessary, the committee can call for anybody to assist,” Dwivedi clarified.

The deadline for the committee will be one month, but the official order has not been received by committee members yet. “I am yet to receive an official order, the CM house has confirmed it,” Sahoo told MediaNama. “Any work will be started after we receive the official communication. [There is a delay in receipt of orders] because all these events took place over the weekend,” he explained. “Their [state’s] intention is clear, but the official order is yet to reach me.”

Chattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel also tweeted about this yesterday: “We have taken the reports that some people of Chattisgarh had their phones illegally tapped seriously. Since this is tied to the question of citizens’ freedom, we are taking this seriously and have set up a committee under the leadership of principal secretary (home). The other members of the committee are Raipur IG and director of department of public relations. The committee will submit a detailed report within a month. The police department will cooperate with this committee.”

The Chattisgarh Police has also written to the NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio, asking him about the alleged meeting with the department, the Business Standard reported.

The Sunday Guardian had first reported on November 2 that in 2017, the NSO Group had pitched Pegasus to the Chattisgarh Police at the police headquarters in Raipur. Dwivedi told MediaNama that the committee was set up “in response to reports received from various sources”.

On October 30, MediaNama had first reported that WhatsApp was suing the NSO Group for exploiting a since-then fixed vulnerability in WhatsApp that allowed attackers to plant spyware in users’ phones just by ringing their target’s device. This attack affected 1,400 people globally of which, as per Toronto-based Citizen lab, over 100 human rights defenders and journalists in at least 20 countries were targeted. The Indian Express later confirmed that about two dozen Indian activists and lawyers had been targeted.

Of the 22 Indians who have confirmed to have been contacted by either Citizen Lab or WhatsApp, 4 are based out of Chattisgarh — Shalini Gera, Bela Bhatia, Degree Prasad Chauhan, and Shubhranshu Choudhary. Choudhary told MediaNama that he has since changed his cellular device, at Citizen Lab’s advice.

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Not the only phone tapping case against Chattisgarh govt

The Pegasus case isn’t the only case of illegal phone tapping against the Chattisgarh government. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a petition filed by a former IPS officer in the Chattisgarh government, Mukesh Gupta, who has accused the state of illegally tapping his phones and monitoring the movements of his family. The SC bench had reportedly asked the state, “Is there any privacy left? What is happening in this country?” An FIR had been filed against Gupta for allegedly filing false cases and falsifying evidence in an alleged civil supplies scam.

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