These reports by a consortium of news outlets that have been revealing identities of (potential) surveillance targets have major implications on the state of surveillance in India.
The latest report under the Pegasus Project investigation taken up by The Wire in India has revealed 18 new possible surveillance targets from Indian private and public sector units. This includes multiple senior-level officials from private sector companies who have had run-ins with the law along with senior-level officials at PSUs like LIC and Gail.
Why it matters? The leaked database which is the subject of the investigation reveals the potential extent of surveillance undertaken by the Israeli firm NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. The fact that several people named in this report have been under the scanner of the Enforcement Directorate (ED), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA), or engaged in legal battles with the government, gains significance in regards to surveillance.
According to NSO, the spyware is only sold to vetted governments and their agencies. Once successfully deployed, the spyware can gain access to the microphone, camera, WhatsApp chats, emails, memory, etc. of an android or iOS phone, sometimes with zero-click exploits.
Who is included in the list?
Top private sector executives
- Naresh Goyal, formerly of Jet Airways: Goyal, who was the chairman of the now-defunct airline company Jet Airways, appears on the list weeks before he was prevented from boarding a flight to Dubai with his wife in May 2019. The MCA had subsequently ordered a probe into the airline and last year, Goyal himself was under the scanner of the ED.
- Ajay Singh, chairman and managing director of SpiceJet: Singh co-founded Spicejet in 2005 and left the airline in 2010 only to buy it back in 2015 while it was struggling with debt. He is currently the chairman and MD at SpiceJet. While it is unclear why Ajay Singh was on the list, The Wire’s report notes that he is known to be close to the BJP.
- Prashant Ruia, director of Essar Group: The Essar Group is an Indian multi-national cooperation active in energy, metals and mining, infrastructure, services, and technology sectors. Although the company has been in the news for its massive debts, The Wire’s report does not speculate or provide any detail on when and why Ruia was on the list.
- V. Balasubramanian, former Group President of Reliance Industries and A.N. Sethuraman of Reliance ADA Group:
Both of them had been accused of being involved in an Official Secrets Act case pertaining to stolen Union cabinet documents on economic matters. In August 2019, the Delhi High Court set aside a trial court order allowing the criminal prosecution of RIL and three of its officials for allegedly possessing these secret documents.
- C. Sivasankaran, former Aircel promoter and entrepreneur: Sivasankaran, who was the promoter of telecom company Aircel, has been under the scanner of the Enforcement Directorate for loan fraud. In April 2020, the ED reportedly said that it had attached assets worth Rs 224.6 crore of a firm linked to Sivasankaran in connection with a money-laundering probe into alleged loan fraud at IDBI Bank.
- Vikram Kothari, founder of Rotomac Pens (and son Rahul): The founder of the Rotomac brand of pens and MD of Rotomac global, Kothari has been under investigation by the CBI for alleged loan fraud. In April this year, another case was registered by the CBI against Kothari for allegedly cheating the Union Bank of India of about Rs 63.46 crore.
Top public sector executives
- B.C. Tripathi, ex-chief at GAIL India, currently non-executive chairman at Essar: The report says that Tripathi’s name and phone number appear on the list a month after he took up the top post at Essar in January 2020, and subsequently appears on and off for almost a year afterwards.
- The former boss of Life Insurance Corporation of India
- The former executive director of the Gujarat Narmada Valley Fertiliser Corporation
Lower-level private sector executives
- Five corporate executives associated with India’s mutual fund industry are also on the list. This includes professionals from companies such as Franklin Templeton, DSP BlackRock, and Motilal Oswal.
- There are also three business executives from Spicejet, Essar Group, and Adani Group who The Wire does not name as they requested anonymity. According to the report, “all three effectively operate in a similar role – engaging with thorny policy issues that affect their companies.”
Others on the Pegasus radar
All in all, details of 155 people have been revealed through The Wire’s reports on a leaked database of potential surveillance targets. The news outlet had previously said that there were 300 verified Indian numbers on that database, and it might possibly reveal more names as time passes.
So far reports have said that:
- Phone numbers used by industrialist Anil Ambani as well as officials from aerospace and defence manufacturing firms like Dassault Aviation India, Saab India, and Boeing India were marked as probable targets.
- The phone numbers of two former top Border Security Force officials, a retired senior official from India’s external spy agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and two Indian Army officers who dissented against the government in regards to service-related matters were marked as probable targets.
- Janata Dal (Secular) and Congress politicians (and their aides) in Karnataka were potentially targeted at a time when their coalition government was involved in an intense power struggle with the BJP.
- Tamil nationalist leader and several Periyarist activists such as Naam Thamizhar Katchi’s Seeman, Thirumurugan Gandhi, Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam’s K. Ramakrishnan, and Dravidar Kazhagam treasurer Kumaresan feature in the list of potential targets.
- Former CBI chief Alok Verma, the personal mobile numbers of his wife, daughter, and son-in-law along with numbers of two other senior CBI officials, Rakesh Asthana and A.K. Sharma were selected as potential targets.
- More than 25 people from the Kashmir Valley, including Journalists, seperatist leaders, human rights activists, politicians, and business persons, were selected as potential targets of intrusive surveillance between 2017 and mid-2019.
- Opposition leaders like INC’s Rahul Gandhi, TMC’s Abhishek Bannerjee, former PM Deve Gowda, and political analyst Prashant Kishor were also listed as targets along with a former Election Commission member, several activists, 40 journalists, and others.
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