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Pegasus: Several security personnel, intelligence sleuths chosen for possible surveillance, says report

A senior Enforcement Directorate official who has handled several key cases was also reportedly among the persons of interest that featured in the leaked Pegasus database.

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

Why does it matter? 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, this report indicates that even defence and intelligence personnel were not exempted from possible surveillance using Pegasus.

The Wire’s findings reveal:

Former BSF chief KK Sharma: His number was added to a list of numbers marked as probable targets for surveillance in 2018. The Wire correlated the timing of the inclusion of his number in the list with a meeting organised by an RSS affiliate group that the official had attended in uniform in Kolkata. Sharma had shared the stage with several BJP politicians and NGOs associated with RSS. The ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal had objected to this and TMC MP Derek O’Brien had said that he would take this up with the central government.

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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. It added that Maithani was associated with the Ministry of Home Affairs’ comprehensive integrated border management system (CIBMS) project or smart fencing, where physical fencing of the border, including in the riverine areas with Bangladesh, is not possible. A former senior BSF official was quoted by the publication as saying that Maithani was “handling trials of surveillance systems during that period while posted in our force HQ, and also in MHA. The Israelis had lots of stakes in it.”

Jitendra Kumar Ojha, retired senior RAW official: Ojha’s number was added to the list of probable targets after he had moved to the Central Administrative Tribunal in February 2018, aggrieved by his premature ‘retirement’ from service. Ojha was in charge of training Indian spies in Delhi from 2013 to 2015 and “was eased out of service in 2018”. The number of Ojha’s wife is also figured in the list. Ojha told The Wire, “This is brazenly criminal, particularly to have brought my wife’s phone under surveillance. I suspect this is being done at the behest of criminalised officers, with the objective to bring psychological pressure on me, while I fight my case.”

Colonel Mukul Dev of the Indian Army: The 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. The Wire report said that Dev’s number was identified as a probable target for surveillance in 2019, according to the leaked data. He was quoted as saying by the publication, “I am surprised to know that this may have happened. The only reason I can think of is that they perhaps did not like the fact that I consistently raised my voice for the welfare of the Indian Army. Under this government, whoever raises genuine concerns is looked at with suspicion.”

Colonel Amit Kumar of the Indian Army: Kumar who was then a legal officer at the corps headquarters was also selected for possible surveillance in 2019. The Wire correlated this with a petition he had filed in the Supreme Court on behalf of 356 Army personnel against an alleged dilution of the Armed Forces (Special Forces) Act (AFSPA).

Kumar was posted as a legal officer at the corps headquarters in Jammu and Kashmir when in August 2018, a few months prior to his appearance in the database, he filed a petition in the Supreme Court on behalf of 356 Army personnel against what they apprehended was an impending dilution of the Armed Forces (Special Forces) Act (AFSPA). Kumar told the Wire that he was aware that he may have been under surveillance in 2020. However, he was surprised to learn that he may have been under surveillance from 2018.

The Wire was unable to forensically test any of the phones associated with the persons in this story. While the appearance of a number in the Pegasus Project database is an indication of official interest in the person concerned, only an examination of the phones data can conclusively establish whether or not it was targeted by Pegasus spyware — The Wire report

Senior ED official who handled several key cases selected as possible target for surveillance

Another The Wire report named Rajeshwar Singh, a senior Enforcement Directorate officer who led several high-profile investigations as a possible target of Pegasus spyware. Apart from Singh, the numbers of his wife and his two sisters were also included in the list. Singh has worked on cases like:

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  • 2G spectrum scam case
  • Aircel-Maxis case
  • Sahara Group case
  • Disproportionate assets case of Andhra Pradesh CM Jagan Mohan Reddy

The Aircel Maxis case involved clearances granted by the Foreign Investment Promotion Board to a firm for investment in Aircel in 2016. P Chidambaram was the finance minister during this period and his son, Karti, was accused of receiving the money to facilitate the deal, the Wire report said. At the time when Singh was investigating the Aircel-Maxis case, a PIL was filed by one Rajneesh Kumar claiming that Singh had amassed disproportionate assets, the Wire reported.

His sister Abha Singh said that they were possible targets of surveillance because of the kind of work they do. “Just look at our profiles, each one of us are handling important assignments,” she told The Wire. In Maharashtra, Abha told the Wire, she has been handling several high-profile cases and has also been a vocal critic of BJP.

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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