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India’s cybersecurity agency to probe security alert sent by Apple to politicians, journalists

CERT-In, which falls under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, has not publicly confirmed the development.

The Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), the nodal agency for cybersecurity in the country, will probe the alert sent by Apple to politicians and journalists warning them that their iPhones might be targets of state-sponsored attackers. Apple has been sent a notice to cooperate in the probe, MoneyControl reported on November 2. CERT-In, which falls under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, has not publicly confirmed this information.

Separately, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology is also contemplating summoning Apple representatives to address these alerts, ANI reported. MP John Brittas said he has written to the committee’s chairperson seeking a meeting on the issue. Congress’s Karti Chidambaram also said that he would request for the affected MPs and Apple representatives to be called before the committee, Indian Express reported.

On October 31, multiple members of parliament belonging to opposition parties including Mahua Moitra, Priyanka Chaturvedi, Asaduddin Owaisi, Sashi Tharoor, and Raghav Chadha took to social media to share the alert they received from Apple. Along with the politicians, journalists including Sriram Karri (Resident Editor, Deccan Chronicle) and Siddharth Varadarajan (founding editor, The Wire) also reported that they received the alert. You can find more people who received the alerts here.

Apple then confirmed that it sent the alerts but declined to attribute the attack to any particular state. It also declined to provide information about what causes the company to issue such alerts because it “may help state-sponsored attackers adapt their behaviour to evade detection in the future.”

Later in the day, IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw and MoS IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar both downplayed the severity of the incident, with Vaishnaw noting that Apple’s alert is vague and could be a false alarm and Chandrasekhar questioning the security of Apple devices. Both Ministers, however, said that the government will investigate the alerts.

MP Mahua Moitra, who was one of the people who received an alert from Apple, has written to the Lok Sabha speaker alleging surveillance on Opposition members:

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MediaNama’s Take: The government is investigating a case where it is the main accused

Ironically, the government is in charge of investigating a case where it is the main accused. The fact that only opposition leaders received the alerts has raised suspicion that the Indian government is behind the attack, especially given all the revelations made in the Pegasus spyware exposé in 2021. The government’s official response to Apple’s alerts, through Ministers Ashwini Vaishanw and Rajeev Chandrasekhar, is mainly around Apple’s security. Neither of them denied the Indian government’s involvement or whether the Indian government has purchased spyware to snoop on opposition politicians. They barely even addressed the issue of snooping. Instead, they placed all the onus on Apple to explain its alerts and prove the security of its device. Given this, it is unlikely that the CERT-In investigation will lead to anything tangible. It’s also unlikely that Apple will name any particular country behind the attack because that could affect its business interests, especially if it’s India, where it’s ramping up its manufacturing.

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