Rahul Gandhi, Prashant Kishor among those targeted by Pegasus spyware

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New Delhi: In a surveillance attack by the Israel-based firm revealed on Sunday, at least two mobile phone accounts used by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi were among 300 verified Indian numbers listed as potential targets by an official Indian client, The Wire reported today.

Apart from Rahul Gandhi, the phone of poll strategist Prashant Kishor was also broken into using NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. This gives an idea that the spyware was used particularly on those opposing the current government, as the NSO insists that only “vetted governments” can purchase Pegasus.

Kishor was working as the election strategist for Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress in West Bengal when he was targeted.

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According to a report by The Wire, Gandhi’s numbers, which he has since given up, are part of a large database of leaked numbers believed to be drawn up by NSO Group clients and accessed by the French media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and shared with 16 news organizations, including The Wire, Washington Post and others.

The forensic inspection of a cross-section of phones drawn from this list by Amnesty International’s technical lab has confirmed the presence of Pegasus spyware in as many as 37 instruments, 10 of which are in India.

Gandhi’s phones are not among those examined as he no longer has the handsets he used at the time that his numbers appear to have been selected for targeting – from mid-2018 to mid-2019.

Without forensics, it is not possible to establish yet if Pegasus was used against Gandhi’s phone. He had earlier told The Wire that he had received suspicious WhatsApp messages in the past – one of the known vectors for a spyware hack – and frequently changed numbers and instruments so as to make it “a little harder for them” to target him.

Asked for his reaction to the news that he had been placed on a lost of potential targets for hacking, Gandhi told The Wire,

“Targeted surveillance of the type you describe whether in regard to me, other leaders of the opposition or indeed any law-abiding citizen of India is illegal and deplorable. If your information is correct, the scale and nature of surveillance you describe goes beyond an attack on the privacy of individuals. It is an attack on the democratic foundations of our country. It must be thoroughly investigated and those responsible be identified and punished.”

Rahul Gandhi

Apart from Rahul Gandhi’s personal phones, the numbers of his two close aides, Alankar Sawai and Sachin Rao, also figure in the leaked database, for mid-2019, The Wire said.

At least 300 verified phones from India were listed as potential targets by an official Indian client of the Israeli surveillance, The Wire said in its report. It published a series of reports as to how NSO’s spyware made a concerted attack at 40 journalists, rights activists, ministers and judges among others.