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Pegasus: Numbers of Anil Ambani and other industrialists also on list for probable surveillance

While the list of mobile numbers marked for probable surveillance is expansive, Ambani’s inclusion gains significance in the context of the 2018 Rafale deal and the controversy that ensued. 

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 for surveillance by an Indian client of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, a report by The Wire said.

Why it matters? These reports by an international consortium of media organisations that have been revealing identities of victims affected by Pegasus – and of those who were potential targets of the spyware – have major implications on the state of surveillance and privacy in the country. While earlier reports of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Karnataka politicians being included in the list had suggested that these potential deployments may have a political motive, new reports suggested that even officials of defence manufacturing firms may have been surveilled.

Anil Ambani: The Wire report said that Ambani’s name was included in the leaked database of numbers in 2018, around the time when the Narendra Modi-led Indian government decided to purchase 36 Rafale aircraft and allegedly proposed to make Ambani the industry partner for this deal. A PIL was taken up regarding this issue at the Supreme Court after a controversy regarding the deal erupted in France and India, the Wire report said.

The mere presence of a number on this list does not imply the smartphone connected to it was successfully snooped upon – a conclusion that can only be established by conducting digital forensics on the device’s data – but the consortium has reason to believe that it represents a person of interest for an unknown client of the NSO Group – The Wire

Tony Jesudasan: Reliance ADA Group’s corporate communication chief Tony Jesudasan and his wife’s numbers also figured in the list in 2018. The Wire report said that Jesudasan was considered to be a troubleshooter for Ambani’s businesses in matters of regulatory policy and media management.

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Venkat Rao Posina: Dassault Aviation’s India representative Venkata Rao Posina developed a “reputation for ferociously defending the Rafale deal to the point of apparently getting into verbal altercations with journalists on Twitter”. His number was also included in the leaked database between 2018 and 2019.

Harmanjit Nagi: Nagi, who is head of the French energy firm EDF, was “a significant choice” because he was a member of Emmanuel Macron’s official delegation during the French president’s visit to India in the 2018-2019 period.

Saab India head Inderjit Sial: Sial was added to the list shortly after the MMRCA contract was awarded to Rafale in 2013. He told The Wire “that one of the reasons some government agency might have been interested in putting him under surveillance was because he had been in the running for the top job at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited during the period his number figures in the leaked database.”

Defence and intelligence personnel also on the list

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 an Indian Army officer who dissented against the government in regards to service-related matters were also marked as probable targets for surveillance by an Indian client of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, a report by The Wire said.

They are:

  • Former BSF chief KK Sharma: His number was added to a list of phone numbers marked as probable targets for surveillance in 2018. The Wire correlated the timing of the inclusion of his mobile number in the list with a meeting organised by an RSS affiliate group that the official had attended in uniform in Kolkata.
  • Jagdish Maithani, BSF Inspector General of Police: Maithani “appears to have been of considerable interest to an Indian client of NSO between 2017 and 2019” when he was a commandant, The Wire report said.
  • Jitendra Kumar Ojha, retired senior RAW official: Ojha’s mobile number was added to the list of probable targets who had moved the Central Administrative Tribunal in February 2018.
  • Colonel Mukul Dev of the Indian Army: The mobile number of Colonel Mukul Dev who had sent a legal notice to the secretary of defence in 2017 regarding service-related matters, was also selected as a possible surveillance target in 2019.

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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