After Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International allegedly accessed a leaked database of thousands of telephone numbers, they shared it with 17 global media organizations as part of a collaborative investigation under the title ‘Pegasus Project’.
The project alleges that not only the autocratic regimes but democratic governments, including India and Mexico, have used spyware for political ends.
There are over 50,000 phone numbers worldwide on the leaked list who were under surveillance of the Israeli malware, Pegasus. The media outlets were able to identify more than 1,000 individuals in 50 countries. Among the list, the phone numbers of over 300 Indians were under surveillance.
SC Judge, Journalists, Lawyers, and Activists On Target
- One Supreme Court judge
- 49 journalists
- 3 major opposition leaders
- 1 constitutional authority
- 2 serving cabinet ministers
- Government officials
- Human rights activists
Other Names Coming To The Fore
Names of some activists, lawyers, and academics connected to the Elgar Parishad Case are also surfacing on the internet in connection to the list of people whose phone numbers were under surveillance. The provided names include Hany Babu Musaliyarveettil Tharayil, his wife Jenny Rowena, Vernon Gonsalves, Anand Teltumbde, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, retired professor Shoma Sen, and lawyer Arun Ferreira.
The media outlet, The Wire has also confirmed that three phone numbers belonging to the Supreme Court staffer who had accused former CJI Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment were also selected as potential targets for surveillance by an unidentified official of an Indian agency (An NSO customer).
NSO Threatened Defamation Lawsuit
NSO Group has denied all the accusations while terming it to be full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories. “We would like to emphasize that NSO sells its technologies solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments for the sole purpose of saving lives through preventing crime and terror acts,” NSO said.
What is Pegasus Spyware?
Pegasus is military-grade spyware which is developed by an Israeli firm NSO Group. The firm claims that it provides authorized governments with technology that helps them combat terror and crime.
Mode of Attack– Either a link or through a WhatsApp call
Initially, the Pegasus spyware was used to access a phone (iOS and Android) through a malicious link. Researchers later found that the spyware can attack a phone even with a WhatsApp Call.
Pegasus Spyware Can Track
- Text messages
- WhatsApp audio and video calls
Tool For Total Surveillance
“Pegasus is modular malware. After scanning the target’s device, it installs the necessary modules to read the user’s messages and mail, listen to calls, capture screenshots, log pressed keys, exfiltrate browser history, contacts, and so on and so forth. Basically, it can spy on every aspect of the target’s life,” wrote Kaspersky researchers.
Zero Click Option
Researchers even claimed that the spyware can now attack without any user interaction
“Pegasus delivers a chain of zero-day exploits to penetrate security features on the phone and installs Pegasus without the user’s knowledge or permission,” claimed The Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary lab based at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto.
A zero-day exploit is a completely unknown vulnerability, about which even the software manufacturer is not aware, and there is, thus, no patch or fix available for it.
The Only Way To Get Rid Of Pegasus Spyware – Discard The Phone
Pegasus and NSO have been hitting the headlines since 2016 but created a massive controversy in 2019 with accusations of snooping on journalists and human rights activists around the globe.
In 2019, WhatsApp and its parent company Facebook sued NSO Group in U.S. federal court in San Francisco accusing it of using messaging platform to conduct cyber espionage and included 1,400 mobile phones. Indian government denied the allegations about spying on its citizens after WhatsApp filed the lawsuit.
As confirmed by The Wire, two mobile numbers belonging to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi are also in the list. It later confirmed that the numbers of five of Rahul Gandhi’s social friends and acquaintances were also under surveillance.