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Pegasus controversy: Spyware found on three French journalists’ phones, officials confirm

French President Macron had called for an investigation as his own name was listed as a potential surveillance target; meanwhile, the Indian government has been unresponsive to demands for a probe. 

French intelligence officials have confirmed the presence of Israeli firm NSO group’s Pegasus spyware in the mobile phones of three French journalists, a report by The Guardian said. This is the first instance where there has been an official confirmation regarding the findings of the Pegasus Project. 

According to the report, Anssi – France’s national agency for information systems security – has identified traces of the spyware on the phones of a senior member of the international television network France24, French investigative website Mediapart’s director Edwy Patel and investigative journalist Lénaïg Bredoux. 

The France24 journalist’s phone was targeted for surveillance thrice – in May 2019, September 2020, and January 2021, French newspaper Le Monde reported

Why it matters? According to the Israeli firm NSO Group which owns Pegasus, the spyware is only sold to “vetted governments” and is supposed to be used against criminals and terrorists. However, the Pegasus Project uncovered that the potential targets of the spyware included journalists, lawyers, activists, opposition leaders, businessmen among many others. According to Forbidden Stories, at least 180 journalists across the globe have been potential targets of the Pegasus spyware. Among Indian journalists, The Wire had revealed the names of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Sushant Singh, Rohini Singh, Shishir Gupta, Prashant Jha, and Rahul Singh among many others as potential targets of Pegasus surveillance. The potential target list also includes French President Emmanuel Macron who has called for an investigation in the matter. 

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Pegasus violates privacy and freedom of press: French target

Reacting to the news, Bredoux, a French journalist with Mediapart in whose phone digital traces of Pegasus were found, told the Guardian that the findings cemented her long-held suspicions that she had been targeted. She said, “It takes a bit of time to realize it, but it’s extremely unpleasant to think that one is being spied on, that photos of your husband and children, your friends – who are all collateral victims – are being looked at; that there is no space in which you can escape. It’s very disturbing.”

Raising concerns about the violation of her privacy as well as freedom of the press, she added, “As journalists, what is even more worrying is that sources and contacts may have been compromised, that these are violations not just of your privacy and private life, but of the freedom of the press.”

A source close to France24 journalist whose phone was also targeted via Pegasus told the Guardian that the broadcaster is shocked and angry after the revelations.  “We are stupefied and angry that journalists could be the object of spying. We will not be taking this lying down. There will be legal action,” the source said.

Israeli officials visit NSO Group office on the same day as France-Israel meet 

The Israeli government officials paid a visit to the NSO group office on the same day as a meeting between the Defence Ministers of France and Israel. 

Israel’s Defence Ministry didn’t dwell into further details regarding the nature of the team’s visit. As per the news report, the team which visited the NSO group office comprised representatives from the Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry, Justice Ministry, Mossad, and Military Intelligence. 

In the wake of French President Emmanuel Macron’s name also being listed as a potential target by a Moroccon client of NSO, the Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz paid a visit to Paris. A Reuters report had stated that Gantz met Florence Parly, his French counterpart, and shared initial findings on NSO.  

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According to Gabriel Attal, a French spokesperson, Parly planned to question Gantz about the “knowledge the Israeli government had about the activities of NSO clients” and what preventive measures were being taken by the Israeli government against such misappropriation.

What is the Indian Government’s stance on the Pegasus probe?   

While the French government has been proactive in its investigation regarding the Pegasus surveillance, the Indian government is yet to initiate an enquiry in this matter. While addressing the Lok Sabha, IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw did not categorically deny the usage or purchase of Pegasus; however, he remarked that the presence of a particular number on a reported database doesn’t necessarily indicate snooping. In the wake of NSO Group’s statement, he also added that the list of countries reported to be its customers was incorrect and many of them were western countries.

Apart from the IT Minister, Home Minister Amit Shah had dismissed the revelations of the Pegasus project and had called it a “report by disruptors for the obstructors.” However, the demand for a probe into the Pegasus surveillance is being initiated not just by the Opposition but also by the BJP’s own allies including Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. 

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