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Bhima Koregaon lawyer urges SC committee to examine his phone for Pegasus spyware

Allegations of Pegasus surveillance and planting of evidence using NetWire continue to swirl around the case.

Nihalsingh Rathod, one of the lawyers who has defended several activists accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, alleged that his phone was compromised using Pegasus spyware, in a letter sent to the technical committee appointed by the Supreme Court of India which is investigating the Pegasus scandal, according to a report by India Today.

Rathod urged the committee to examine his mobile phone in the letter. He wrote that he has many reasons to believe that his phone was compromised such as his communication with WhatsApp in which the platform confirmed that his phone was indeed hacked in 2019, the report said.

He also accused Indian agencies of using malicious software called NetWire to target him and other accused in the case, given the suspicious mails received by them. The letter said that he was willing to appear before the committee and called for its proceedings to be made public, as per India Today.

Rathod’s allegations are likely to cast serious doubts on the National Investigation Agency’s case against the several activists accused of instigating violence at Bhima Koregaon. They also highlight the precarious nature of surveillance in India.

Who else among the accused has been targeted with spyware?

Several activists such as Shalini Gera, Anand Teltumbde, Bela Bhatia were contacted by WhatsApp in 2019 stating that the messaging app was used to spy upon them and at least two dozen Indian journalists and human rights activists, according to The Indian Express. There was no action taken against the NSO Group or an investigation into who gave the orders to carry out the said surveillance.

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“Arsenal found Pegasus (spyware) indicators on the Windows volume of Mr. Rona Wilson’s computer in two iTunes backups from an iPhone 6s” which belongs to Rona Wilson, revealed computer forensics firm Arsenal Consulting in a report. These indicators carried timestamps from July 5, 2017 to April 10, 2018, the report added.

Arsenal’s report confirmed that Wilson’s computer was targeted with NetWire RAT (Remote Access Trojan) for purposes of both surveillance and incriminating document delivery at the same time as the Pegasus attacks on his phone.

“The indicators found by Arsenal reflect not only Pegasus attacks, but successful Pegasus infection of Mr. Wilson’s iPhone 6s.” — Arsenal Consulting report.

Wilson was one of the first to be arrested in the Elgar Parishad case which saw several other human rights activists and lawyers being accused of instigating violence at a 2018 event held to commemorate the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. Nihalsingh Rathod has represented many activists such as Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, and Sagar Gorkhe, according to The Wire.

What do we know about the Pegasus spyware scandal?

An investigation conducted by a consortium of 17 news organisations last year revealed that more than 50,000 phone numbers were either targets or potential targets of Pegasus spyware developed by an Israeli company— NSO Group. These numbers belonged to journalists, politicians, activists, bureaucrats, heads of state, among many others. The group, however, responded that the spyware is sold only to vetted governments and its agencies to neutralise terrorists and criminals.

According to The Wire, at least nine phone numbers belonging to eight accused in the Elgar Parishad case, were listed in the database:

  • Professor Hany Babu
  • Activist Vernon Gonsalves
  • Academic and civil liberties activist Anand Teltumbde
  • Prof Shoma Sen
  • Journalist and rights activist Gautam Navlakha
  • Lawyer Arun Ferreira
  • Academic and activist Sudha Bharadwaj

Supreme Court’s intervention

The technical committee recently began reaching out to people who were allegedly targeted by the spyware, detailing the scope of the probe, and asking them to join the investigation by submitting their infected mobile device and a statement.

The Supreme Court was forced to act after several petitions were filed by several parties to order an investigation when the Union government did not take any action to investigate the scope of snooping.

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The Court on October 27 formed an expert committee to investigate the issue saying that:

“[Citing national security concerns] does not mean that the state gets a free pass every time the spectra of national security is raised. National security is not a bugbear that the judiciary shies away from, by virtue of its mere mention. Although this court should be circumspect in encroaching the area of national security, no omnibus prohibition can be called against judicial review.”

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