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Karnataka politicians, aides chosen for Pegasus surveillance amid political turmoil in 2019: Report

The phone numbers that were selected belonged to aides who worked for state political figures that were at the centre of a political power struggle at the time. 

The Wire’s latest report on the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware attack indicated that several Janata Dal (Secular) and Congress politicians and their aides in Karnataka were targeted during the time when the State’s administration was involved in an intense power struggle with the Bharatiya Janata Party — which ultimately led to BJP forming the government in the State.

Why it matters? These revelations have major implications on the state of surveillance and privacy in the country. Earlier reports said that Congress politician Rahul Gandhi and former Election Commission member Ashok Lavasa who dissented against Prime Minister Narendra Modi were listed as ‘potential targets of surveillance’. The confirmed spyware attack against poll strategist Prashant Kishor who was key to the Trinamool Congress securing a win in West Bengal against BJP, indicated that there could be a political motive behind these alleged spyware attacks. Tuesday’s report by The Wire on the Karnataka government only reaffirmed this indication.

The Wire in their report said that the phone numbers of deputy chief minister G Parameshwara and the personal secretaries of former Chief Ministers HD Kumaraswamy and Siddaramaiah were selected as possible targets of surveillance. The numbers form a part of a leaked database accessed by the French media non-profit Forbidden Stories which was shared with an international media consortium.

The Wire’s findings —

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  • Two phone numbers belonging to Satish, personal secretary of then-CM HD Kumaraswamy selected for potential targeting in mid-2019
  • Phone number of former Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s personal secretary Venkatesh included in the list
  • Number of policeman Manjunath Muddegowda, one of the security personnel of former Prime Minister and JD(S) President HD Devegowda also included in the list

However, the news portal said that it was “not possible to conclusively establish these Karnataka politics-related phones were infected or subjected to an attempted hack”.

‘Numbers selected during political turmoil’

In 2019, when these numbers appeared to have been selected for potential targeting for surveillance, there was an intense power struggle between the BJP and the JD(S)-Congress coalition government. Congress and JD(S) had alleged that BJP, backed by the Union government, was attempting to topple their coalition government. Though the BJP denied these allegations, the rebel MPs who were disqualified by the house Speaker joined BJP. The alleged horse-trading was dubbed as Operation Lotus — “a term first coined by opposition parties to hint at the ruling BJP’s allegedly frequent attempts to topple democratically-elected governments”.

What did the potential victims say?

The Wire quoted Siddaramaiah’s associate Venkatesh, whose number too appeared on the list, as saying, “I don’t know whether my phone was a target for snooping. All I can say is that I don’t do anything illegal. If what you are claiming is true, it is wrong and I strongly condemn such action.” The portal said that Venkatesh declined to have his phone forensically examined.

The policeman who was associated with JD(S) president HD Devegowda refused to speak on the matter to The Wire. Former Congress Deputy Chief Minister G Parameshwara, who the report claims was selected as a candidate for surveillance told the Wire, ” I have no idea about the spyware. But if at all my phone number was put under surveillance, as you are claiming it was, I do not know why it was done. I was not involved in any political management at the time. I wasn’t even the Pradesh Congress Committee president at the time.”

Who else has been impacted by Pegasus?

According to a report by The Wire, 40 Indian journalists were listed as targets between 2017 and 2019. The list includes journalists from nearly every major media outlet-

  • Ritika Chopra (Senior Assistant Editor), Muzamil Jaleel (Kashmir Chief of Bureau), Sushant Singh (Former Associate Editor) from the Indian Express
  • Siddharth Vardarajan (Founding Editor), M.K. Venu (Founding Editor), Devirupa Mitra (Diplomatic Editor) of The Wire.
  • Rohini Singh, Swati Chaturvedi, and Prem Shankar Jha who are contributors to The Wire were also listed.
  • Shishir Gupta, (Executive Editor), Prashant Jha (former bureau chief), Rahul Singh at Hindustan Times
  • Vijaita Singh of The Hindu
  • Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (Former EPW editor)
  •  S.N.M. Abdi (Former Outlook journalist)
  • Sandeep Unnithan (Senior Correspondent) at India Today
  • Saikat Dutta (Former senior editor at Asia Times)
  • J. Gopikrishnan (Former special correspondent at The Pioneer)
  • Smita Sharma (Former reporter at The Tribune)
  • Iftikhar Ghilani (DNA reporter)
  • Santosh Bhartiya (Former Lok Sabha MP and journalist)
  • Roopesh Kumar Singh (Independent journalist)
  • Sanjay Shyam (Journalist)
  • Jaspal Singh Heran (Editor of Punjabi-daily Rozana Pehredar)
  • Manoranjan Gupta (Editor-in-chief of Frontier TV)

Of these, the smartphones of 8 journalists, were submitted for forensic analysis and showed that –

  • The smartphones of S.N.M Abidi, Sushant Singh, M.K. Venu, Siddharth Vardarajan, and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta were infected by the Pegasus Spyware.
  • Smita Sharma’s iPhone and Vijaita Singh’s android phone showed evidence of an attempted hack but no evidence of successful completion.
  • The iPhone of another editor of a mainstream newspaper was subjected to the analysis however the report says that no traces of Pegasus could be found primarily because it was not the same device she used during the period for which her name has been mentioned in the list.
  • In 2021, Sushant Singh’s iPhone was compromised from March to July 2021 through ‘what Amnesty International calls a zero-click exploit in the iMessage service’. M.K. Venu’s phone was also infected in June 2021 through a zero-click exploit.
  • In April 2018, Siddharth Vardarajan’s phone was compromised along with SNM Adbidi’s and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s phones. Thakurta’s phone was subsequently compromised during May, June, and July 2018 as well, while Abidi’s phone was subsequently compromised during April, May, July, October as well as December 2019. The method by which all three were attacked could not be determined.

More reading on Pegasus

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

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