Recently, the Israeli government had also visited the NSO Group’s office even as the company continues to deny the revelations brought forth by the Pegasus Project reports.
Israel-based NSO Group whose spyware Pegasus has reportedly been used to (potentially) snoop on hundreds of Indians, has temporarily blocked several government clients around the world from using its technology as it conducts an internal investigation into the spyware’s possible misuse, an NPR.org report said.
Why it matters? Since NSO Group has specifically stated that they only sell their products such as Pegasus to vetted governments and agencies, questions have been raised of the Indian government ever since it came to the fore that several Indians, including many who may have/have been critical of the ruling party, were surveilled. They include Congress politician Rahul Gandhi, election strategist Prashant Kishor, former Election Commission member Ashok Lavasa and others.
An anonymous source in the NSO Group was quoted by NPR.org as saying, “There is an investigation into some clients. Some of those clients have been temporarily suspended.” NPR.org said the source in the company spoke on the condition of anonymity because company policy, reportedly, stated that NSO “will no longer be responding to media inquiries on this matter and it will not play along with the vicious and slanderous campaign.”
The report also said that the company employee would not name or ‘quantify’ the government agencies or their countries that were suspended from using its spyware. Nevertheless, MediaNama reached out to Daniel Estrin, the author of the article with queries over whether the Indian government or any of its agencies figured in the blocked list. He responded by saying that the NSO source would not name the countries.
NSO’s ongoing internal investigation
The same anonymous source said that the company had checked some of the telephone numbers that were part of the leaked database accessed by the Pegasus Project — which is a consortium of media outlets that first reported that the company’s Pegasus spyware was responsible for the surveillance of not just Indian targets but also international journalists, activists, and heads of States.
“Almost everything we checked, we found no connection to Pegasus,” the employee was quoted as saying by the NPR.org report. The Israeli government has also been under pressure ever since the publication of these reports, especially because the government regulates the sale of spyware to other countries, it added.
On Wednesday, Israeli officials visited NSO’s office in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, “in order to assess the allegations raised in regards to the company,” the defense ministry said. The NSO employee told NPR.org that the company was cooperating “fully with the probe and sought to prove to Israeli officials that the people named in the media reports were not Pegasus targets”.
Israel shares NSO findings with France
According to a Reuters report, Israel’s defence minister on Wednesday shared the initial findings from a government assessment of NSO Group’s exports with France. French President Emmanuel Macron’s phone number was allegedly among the potential targets of spyware.
The Reuters report said that Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz’s office informed he would fly out to meet French counterpart Florence Parly for talks about Lebanon’s governance crisis and Iran’s nuclear diplomacy. “He (Gantz) will also update the minister on the topic of NSO,” the office of the Defence Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday as per the report.
What has NSO said so far in regards to Pegasus Project?
The NSO Group has been denying the allegations made in the reports but has also indicated that it will investigate serious allegations. Its CEO has also appeared in multiple interviews to address the issue.
- Full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories: NSO stated that the report by Forbidden Stories is “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability and interests of the sources. It seems like the ‘unidentified sources’ have supplied information that has no factual basis and are far from reality.”
- No factual basis: The company said that it checked the claims made by Forbidden Stories and found that the information obtained by them has “no factual basis, as evident by the lack of supporting documentation for many of their claims.”
- Leaked list is not related to NSO: Referring to the leaked list of 50,000 numbers alleged to be potential targets of Pegasus, NSO said: “NSO is not related to the list [of numbers], it is not an NSO list, and it never was.”
- NSO does not have access to customers’ data: “NSO does not operate the systems that it sells to vetted government customers, and does not have access to the data of its customers’ targets,” NSO said. Although it can obtain them for investigation purposes, and governments are obligated to cooperate, the company said, clarifying instances where NSO was able to confirm that some people were not potential targets.
Indian names 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, separatist 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.
- Pegasus Spyware: All the latest facts on who was targeted and more
- Pegasus: How do we rein in State surveillance? Here’s what experts said
- IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw addresses Parliament on Pegasus Spyware