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All that’s happening on Pegasus since the New York Times reported that India purchased the spyware

The report’s findings have led to allegations of treason against the Modi government, while calls for a probe intensify.

In light of recent revelations put forth by the New York Times around the purchase and use of Pegasus spyware by the Indian government, Lok Sabha MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury moved a privilege motion against the Minister of Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw and the BJP-led NDA government for allegedly misleading the Parliament on the issue.

In a letter to the Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, Chowdhury pointed out that in the aftermath of the Pegasus controversy last year, wherein it was alleged that the Indian government used military-grade spyware on Indian citizens, Vaishnaw in a sworn affidavit had said: “unequivocally, we deny any and all of the allegations against the Government”.

“In view of the above, I demand that a Privilege Motion may be initiated against the Minister of Information Technology for deliberately misleading the House on the Pegasus issue.” — Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha

The NYT investigation claimed that the Indian government had bought Pegasus in 2017, as part of a larger arms deal with Israel. The Indian government is yet to issue any clarifications regarding the claims, at the time of publishing this report.

In 2021, a consortium of 17 news organisations carried out an investigation into Pegasus surveillance. At the center of the investigation was the Pegasus spyware, developed by the Israeli firm NSO Group, which has serious consequences on issues pertaining to privacy, security, and surveillance. The software purportedly infects electronic devices without detection and spies on its victims by transferring all the data on the device to a master server. It has been identified as a cyber weapon that is sold exclusively to governments by NSO.

Modi government lied to the Supreme Court: Chowdhury

In his letter, Chowdhury accused the Modi government of lying to the Supreme Court when it was questioned about the purchase and deployment of Pegasus.

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In September 2021, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Indian government, had argued in the Supreme Court that there was no ‘unauthorised surveillance’. He had said that the Pegasus issue “can’t be debated or placed on affidavit”, and can’t be a matter of public debate. This has its own pitfalls, Mehta had added, including that terror groups don’t know which software is being used to track their activities. The court was critical of the Union of India’s lack of clarification. Read more about the Supreme Court hearings on Pegasus here.

Meanwhile, it was not just Chowdhury who raised an alarm over the findings in the New York Times report. Congress MP Rahul Gandhi criticised the Modi government and accused it of treason.

Rajya Sabha MPs P Chidambaram and Mallikarjun Kharge also questioned the Indian government in their tweets.

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What else did the NYT investigation reveal

In its report, NYT laid down details of Pegasus being purchased and used not just by the Indian government but also by other governments across the world including the United States of America. Here is a look at some of the key findings from the report —

Pegasus finds a place in Indo-Israel relations: The report referred to a visit by Narendra Modi to Israel, a first of its kind by an Indian prime minister. So far, India had maintained a policy of ‘commitment to Palestinian cause’ and relations with Israel were frosty. But, the report said, during that visit, the two countries agreed on a sale of a package of weapons and intelligence gear worth roughly $2 billion — with Pegasus and a missile system at the centre of the deal.

“Two years later, India voted in support of Israel at the UN’s Economic and Social Council to deny observer status to a Palestinian human rights organisation, a first for the nation.” — New York Times

FBI sought a version of Pegasus, CIA was involved too: The report said that FBI had bought a version of Pegasus.  FBI employees bought new smart phones and set them up with dummy accountrs using SIM cards from other countries, the report said, adding that the spyware was designed to be incapable of targeting American phone numbers. The CIA arranged and paid for Djibouti, an African country, to acquire Pegasus in the garb of assisting American allies in combatting terrorism.

“F.B.I. agents using Pegasus could, in theory, almost instantly transform phones around the world into powerful surveillance tools — everywhere except in the United States.” — New York Times

The report also said that NSO had made a presentation and offered the FBI another system called Phantom which was capable of hacking any number in the United States that the FBI decided to target. This was made possible as Israel had granted a special license to NSO, that permitted the system to attack US numbers.

Mexico, one of the first users of Pegasus: Mexico, in a bid to gain an advantage over the drug cartels in the country, acquired Pegasus when it was looking for ways to hack into encrypted BlackBerry messaging services regularly used by the cartels. The NYT report also found a correlation in the acquiring of Pegasus by Mexico and the subsequent diplomatic turn in regards to Israel at United Nations conferences.

Hungary, another Pegasus customer: The NYT report said that the Israeli Defense Ministry licensed the sale of Pegasuus to Hungary. “Orban [Hungary’s Prime Minister] deployed the hacking tools on opposition figures, social activists, journalists who conducted investigations against him and families of former business partners who had become bitter enemies,” the report added.

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Pegasus and its use by countries in the Middle East: The NYT report said that the sale of Pegasus by Israel to its Arab neighbours helped in forging alliances. Israel first sold the system to United Arab Emirates. It was also sold to Saudi Arabia for an installation fee of $55 million.

The fallout in India

Besides the privilege motion against India’s IT minister, a slew of developments have been taking place since the NYT report was published —

Editors Guild of India wants SC committee to take cognisance of the report: In a statement, Editors Guild of India President Seema Mustafa expressed concern regarding the claims made in the NYT report. “The Guild has written to the committee headed by Justice Raveendran which was instituted by the Supreme Court to inquire into and investigate the use of Pegasus spyware,” the statement read.

Indian cyber experts found Pegasus on phones: According to an Indian Express report, at least two cyber-security researchers who deposed before the Supreme Court-appointed technical committee testified that they found ‘concrete evidence’ of use of the malware on devices of the petitioners. One of the two researchers analysed iPhones of seven people, out of which two were found to be infected.

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Serial petitioner strikes again: Advocate ML Sharma has moved the Supreme Court seeking a probe into the reported purchase of Pegasus by the Indian government. According to LiveLaw, Sharma has filed an application seeking directions to register an FIR for investigation to recover the public money paid through the Indo-Israel defence deal. He also sought directions to prosecute Prime Minister Modi, the report added.

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

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