Rahul Gandhi, poll strategist Prashant Kishor and the Centre's new IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw are among the big names revealed as potential targets of Israeli spyware 'Pegasus' in the latest set of explosive revelations by The Wire. The Wire has said at least two mobile phone accounts used by Rahul Gandhi were among 300 verified Indian numbers listed as potential targets by an official client of the Israeli surveillance technology vendor, the NSO Group. Gandhi's numbers, which he has since given up, appear to have been selected for targeting from mid-2018 to mid-2019, when the national elections were held. The Congress said the government was "listening to bedroom conversations" and mocked the ruling BJP as "Bharatiya Jasoos (spy) Party". The targets include two current Union ministers, Prahlad Patel and Ashwini Vaishnaw. Patel appears to have been a person of "particular interest", as the leaked list had phone numbers not just of him and his wife but 15 people linked to him, including his cook and gardener.
Former Delhi University Professor S.A.R. Geelani’s phone number, selected as a target for hacking by an unidentified India-based agency that was a client of Israel’s NSO Group, was infected between 2017 and 2019, according to the results of an independent digital forensics study conducted on his phone in the last month, The Wire reported.
The Wire, in collaboration with Amnesty International’s Security Lab, carried out a forensic analysis of Geelani’s phone, an iPhone still preserved by his family, and can confirm that the phone was compromised on and off for over two years.
Geelani’s phone was infected with Pegasus spyware — the Tel Aviv-based firm’s flagship product, which allows operators of the tool to gain unauthorised access to a user’s mobile device and functions.
Geelani, who used to teach Arabic at Delhi University’s Zakir Hussain College, was arrested in connection with the Parliament attack case but was later acquitted for “want of evidence” by the Delhi high court in October 2003, a decision later upheld by the Supreme Court in August 2005.
The report said Geelani, who had garnered massive support at the time of his incarceration, dedicated his life to working for those jailed, especially for their political views. He, along with his friend Rona Wilson — named as a prime accused in the 2018 Elgar Parishad case — founded the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP). Associated with several causes relating to human rights violations across the country, Geelani later became a core part of the 17-member Committee for Defence and Release of G.N. Saibaba.
Geelani’s son Sayed Atif Geelani, a Delhi-based lawyer, who had preserved the phone even after his father’s death in October 2019, told The Wire that the forensic report has only confirmed the fears they had lived under for decades. “We have always feared that the family is being tracked. For months after his (Geelani’s) death, his phone would notify us about attempts made to hack into his email and phone. This forensic result has only confirmed our suspicion,” Atif said.
The Wire said besides Geelani, the leaked data has also thrown up the numbers of nine more members and close supporters of the Saibaba Defence Committee.
Wilson and his co-accused in the Elgar Parishad case and an associate professor from Delhi University, Hany Babu, were also on the list. Hany Babu was also a core team member of both CRPP and the Saibaba Defence Committee; he mainly handled the press releases and his email ID and phone numbers were usually printed on the press statements.
Other members or close supporters of the Saibaba Defence Committee and CRPP to be selected as potential targets were retired professor G. Haragopal, chairman of the Defence Committee, Saroj Giri and Rakesh Ranjan, both assistant professors in Delhi University who would regularly attend solidarity meetings, Saibaba’s wife Vasantha Kumari and two other academics who did not wish to be named from Delhi.
Others who are on the list, besides Wilson and Hany Babu, from the Elgar Parishad case include rights activist Vernon Gonsalves; academic and civil liberties activist Anand Teltumbde; retired professor Shoma Sen (her number is first selected in 2017); journalist and rights activist Gautam Navlakha; lawyer Arun Ferreira; and academic and activist Sudha Bharadwaj.
Sixteen activists, lawyers and academics from across India have been arrested in the case since 2018.
The France-based media non-profit, Forbidden Stories, and Amnesty International’s Security Lab had access to these records, which they shared with The Wire and 15 other news organisations worldwide as part of a collaborative investigation and reporting project.
Besides those directly accused in the Elgar Parishad case, nearly a dozen more numbers belonging to close relatives, friends, lawyers and colleagues of those arrested also appear to have been of interest.
The Wire has verified the numbers and identities of those using them. Most were interrogated by the Pune police and later by the NIA between 2018 and 2020.
The leaked records also include the numbers of Telugu poet and writer Varavara Rao’s daughter Pavana; lawyer Surendra Gadling’s wife Minal Gadling, his associate lawyers Nihalsingh Rathod and Jagadish Meshram, one of his former clients Maruti Kurwatkar, who was charged in multiple cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), incarcerated for over four years and later released on bail; Bharadwaj’s lawyer Shalini Gera; Teltumbde’s friend Jaison Cooper, a Kerala-based rights activist; scholar of the Naxalite movement and Bastar-based lawyer Bela Bhatia; one of the oldest members of the Kabir Kala Manch cultural group Rupali Jadhav; and tribal rights activist Mahesh Raut’s close associate and lawyer Lalsu Nagoti.
The list also includes as many as five family members of one of the Elgar Parishad accused.
It is unclear if the attacker had managed to gain access to their phones.
The Wire said the addition of numbers, in most cases, began mid-2018 and continued for some months.
In some cases, the phones were chosen as targets during dates which correlate with significant events in the Elgar Parishad case. For instance, the data shows that Pavana’s phone appears first in the records around the time her father Varavara Rao, following a Supreme Court order, was placed under house arrest.
Eighty-year-old Rao, after spending close to 27 months in prison, was released on conditional bail in February this year.
In the cases of Bharadwaj, Gonsalves, Sen and Ferreira, the data shows that their phone numbers continued to show up in the leaked data even months after their phones were seized and they were arrested.
Among other witnesses examined in the case who also find mention on the list include tribal rights activist from Bastar Soni Sori; her nephew and journalist Lingaram Kodopi; Bharadwaj’s close legal associate Ankit Grewal; lawyer, anti-caste activist and Chhattisgarh state president of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) Degree Prasad Chouhan; and assistant professor at the Sri Ram College of Commerce Rakesh Ranjan.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi took up the phone tapping issue and launched a veiled attack against the Prime Minister.
Rahul tweeted: “We know what he’s been reading-everything on your phone! #Pegasus.”
With this he tagged his July 16 tweet saying: “I’m wondering what you guys are reading these days.”
Congress General Secretary Randeep Singh Surjewala said that the government is “tapping jeevi” and has not spared even the RSS leadership and this is “detective sarkar”.
The Indians in the snooping database include over 40 journalists, three major opposition figures, one constitutional authority, two serving ministers in the Narendra Modi government, current and former heads and officials of security organisations and scores of business persons, The Wire reported on Sunday.
Among the numbers in the Pegasus Project database is one that was registered in the name of a sitting Supreme Court judge. However, The Wire has not been able to confirm whether the number, which the judge gave up before it was added to the list, was still being used by him for WhatsApp and other encrypted messaging apps when the number was selected.
“Until such time as we are able to establish the number’s actual user during the period in question, we are withholding the name of the judge,” it said.
The Wire and its partners said that they will also not be revealing the identity of any names that appear to be the subject of counter-terrorism. (IANS)