Pegasus spyware used in run up to toppling Cong-JD(S) govt: Report

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Hyderabad: In a not-so-surprising development, investigations have revealed that the Israel-based NSO group’s spyware was used in the run up to the toppling of the former Congress-JD(S) government in Karnataka. It has been found that in July 2019, the phone numbers of deputy chief minister G. Parameshwara and the personal secretaries of chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy and former chief minister Siddaramaiah were selected as possible targets.

According to The Wire’s review of phone number records, it has been found that some of the key political players in Karnataka were reportedly selected around the time when a struggle was taking place between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress-led state government in 2019. The latter fell after 17 MLAs form the alliance resigned to force a trust vote in the assembly, which the BJP won later.

The numbers form part of a leaked database accessed by the French media non-profit Forbidden Stories and shared with an international media consortium as part of what is called the Pegasus Project. NSO sells its Pegasus spyware – whose use involves the crime of hacking into a smartphone under Indian law – only to governments. Neither NSO nor the Modi government has denied that India is a customer,

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“This period also coincides with the selection of a new number Rahul Gandhi began to use after discarding an earlier one he had been operating, and which had been on the list of potential spyware targets since 2018,” said a report from The Wire, which has been breaking stories about its investigations into the use of Pegasus, the spyware that the Israel-based NSO group sells to governments.

However, The Wire’s report also stated that in the absence of digital forensics, it cannot be ascertained whether these Karnataka politics-related phones were “infected or subjected to an attempted hack”. But the timing surrounding their selections as possible names for surveillance is crucial, given that the period during the political hunger games that played out.

Both the Congress and the JD(S) had then alleged that the BJP-ruled central government, run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was behind toppling their coalition government by poaching their party MLAs. All the legislators who defected had resigned, resulting in bye-elections, which the BJP managed to win mostly, and then came back to power.

This horse-trading of MLAs was also called ‘Operation Lotus’ – a term first coined by opposition parties, hinting at the ruling BJP’s alleged attempt to topple democratically-elected government (BJP’s election symbol is the lotus).

“In its review of the leaked data, The Wire found that two phone numbers belonging to Satish, the personal secretary of then chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy, were selected for potential targeting in mid-2019, at a time in which the Congress-JD(S) government was struggling to win back the rebels. When The Wire reached out to him to inform about his presence on the leaked list, he refused to comment but confirmed that he was using the phone number in 2019,” said the The Wire report.

The phone number of former Congress chief minister Siddaramaiah’s personal secretary Venkatesh was also added in the same period, it added.

Speaking to The Wire, Venkatesh, who has been with Siddaramaiah for over 27 years, confirmed that he was using the phone number which appear in the leaked records, and expressed consternation over his possible surveillance. “I don’t know whether my phone was a target for snooping. All I can say is that I don’t do anything illegal. If what you are claiming is true, it is wrong and I strongly condemn such an action,” he said.

However, he declined The Wire’s offer to get his phone, an Android, forensically examined, citing privacy concerns.

“On similar lines, sitting Congress deputy chief minister G. Parameshwara was also selected as a potential candidate during the middle of this political controversy. When The Wire contacted him, he confirmed that he was using the selected phone number in 2019 but had since stopped using it for many months,” the report stated.