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NIA seeks permission to hand over phones of Bhima Koregaon accused to Pegasus committee

Meanwhile, parliamentary motions concerning Pegasus were not allowed to proceed in Rajya Sabha.

The National Investigating Agency has moved an application before the Special NIA court requesting permission for submitting the mobile phones of the seven accused in the Bhima Koregaon case to the Supreme Court-appointed technical committee which is probing the Pegasus spyware scandal, a report by Bar and Bench said.

The seven accused are Rona Wilson, Vernon Gonsalves, P Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Anand Teltumbde, Hany Babu, and Shoma Sen. According to the report, Special Judge DE Kothalikar directed the agency to serve a copy of the application to the advocates of the accused and seek responses.

This development comes after the accused, through their lawyers and family members, wrote to the SC committee that they wanted to submit their phones, said an Indian Express report. However, since the devices were in the custody of the central agency, they would not be able to do it themselves, the report added.

In 2021, a consortium of 17 news organisations carried out an investigation into Pegasus spyware, developed by the Israeli firm NSO Group, which has serious consequences on issues pertaining to privacy 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.

Rajya Sabha disallowed Pegasus amendments to President’s address

After a New York Times report claimed that the Indian government had bought Pegasus as part of a larger arms deal with Israel, opposition members had demanded a discussion on the issue during the Parliament’s Budget session. However, a Times of India report said that the government had ruled out any discussion of the same.

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The report also said that the Rajya Sabha secretariat disallowed all amendments to the President’s address that were related to the Pegasus issue. Citing anonymous sources, it said that Rajya Sabha had received 99 amendments to the President’s address. However, all of them were disallowed on the grounds that the matter was sub-judice.

In Lok Sabha, the report said, 332 amendments were received to the President’s address out of which 98 were ‘moved and circulated,’ the report added. The House had earlier also denied adjournment motions moved by the Congress, Trinamool Congress, and left parties.

Former Indian envoy to UN criticised NYT piece

Responding to the NYT report, former Indian envoy to the United Nations Syed Akbaruddin told NDTV that there was no link between the $2 billion India-Israel weapons deal and an Indian vote in the UN. The report claimed that the defence deal, also involving Pegasus, influenced India’s vote for Israel in a UN Economic and Social Council meeting.

“Our (India and Israel) ties had improved. There is no doubt about that. It was visible to everybody at the UN. I have written in my book that Israel endorsed an Indian judge to the ICJ (International Court of Justice). This was in 2017. This was open knowledge that our ties were warming up. Where interests coincide, certainly states will work together. I don’t think there is anything to hide about it… I don’t think that’s a linkage. I must say The New York Times on this thing erred and erred egregiously,” Akbaruddin to NDTV

What else did the NYT report say?

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.

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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.

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.

Experts urged SC panel to investigate Airtel

Respondents in the ongoing probe into the Pegasus spyware have called on the Supreme Court-appointed expert panel to order Bharti Airtel to depose before the committee. They cited Citizen Lab’s report which claimed that a few Indian companies’ networks had been infected with the spyware.

Privacy and security researcher Anand Venkatanarayanan and co-founder of Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) Professor Jagdeep Chhokar*, in their affidavits submitted before the Justice RV Raveendran-led committee, said that an enquiry into Airtel by the committee would “confirm the deployment of Pegasus infrastructure in their networks”. Chhokar was one of the 300 Indians featured in the list of more than 50,000 potential targets of surveillance (through Pegasus) by government clients of the NSO Group.

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

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