A day after a list of names – those potentially targeted or targeted – by Israeli surveillance malware Pegasus was revealed on Sunday, more names, including those of a former election commissioner, the rival Congress chief ahead of the 2019 polls and even ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ministers.
More than 300 verified mobile phone numbers could have been targeted for hacking through an Israeli spyware sold only to government agencies, an international media consortium reported on Sunday.
The Wire was the India partner in a global investigative effort which involved 16 other international publications including The Washington Post, The Guardian and Le Monde. The investigation was conducted by Paris-based media non-profit organisation, Forbidden Stories, and rights group, Amnesty International. The cues came from a leaked list of more than 50,000 phone numbers from across the world that are believed to have been the target of surveillance through Pegasus.
The website reported that forensic tests conducted as part of the media investigation project on a small cross-section of phones associated with these numbers revealed clear signs of targeting by Pegasus spyware in 37 phones, of which 10 are Indian.
In a series of reports this evening, The Wire has come out with more revelations. Here are the names which have cropped up in the #PegasusProject today.
Former EC Ashok Lavasa and Elections
A number registered under the name of former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa also figured in the list of 300 Indian numbers as potential targets by the agency that sourced Pegasus from the NSO Group. Lavasa – one of three ECs who dissented and said Prime Minister Narendra Modi violated the Model Code of Conduct during the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections – apparently became a target a few weeks following the judgement.
The post of an election commissioner is that of a constitutional functionary who remains independent of government in order to ensure free and fair elections.
Later, in September 2019, Lavasa was also in the ED and IT department's crosshairs, choosing to quit even though he was in line to head the ECI later.
The Wire also reported that Jagdeep Chhokar, founder of the democracy watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), and The Indian Express journalist Ritika Chopra, who covers the Election Commission, were also potential targets.
Former CJI Gogoi and Judiciary:
Three phone numbers which were registered in the name of the Supreme Court employee who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in April 2019, were on the list of potential targets from India as well. The employee was dismissed in December 2018, weeks after she said she refused the former CJI's advances.
Following her putting out her version in a sworn affidavit on April 20, 2019, the woman was reportedly on the list days later. The Wire also reported that eight other phone numbers which belonged to her husband and his two brothers were also listed down likely persons to be kept an eye on.
Rahul Gandhi and Politicians:
Two phone numbers registered in Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's name figured in the 300 list of Indian numbers as potential targets by the agency that sourced Pegasus from the NSO Group. Both numbers are reportedly inactive. Five of Gandhi's friends and his aides were also on the list, with The Wire reporting that "the presence of at least nine numbers linked to his circle – one of the larger clusters around a person of interest that the Pegasus Project has detected – suggests that his presence in the leaked database is not happenstance."
Gandhi told the news website that he had been the recipient of suspicious messages on WhatsApp earlier and had taken measures, including changing numbers, to make it a "little harder for them". "...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," he reportedly said.
Multiple Pegasus-breach attempts were also reported to have taken place on numbers registered under the name of Prashant Kishor, the political consultant who recently batted for West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee in the Assembly polls this year. "...there is no denying that those who would did so were looking to take undue advantage of their position of power with the help of illegal snooping," he told The Wire. Banerjee's nephew Abhishek, a Trinamool Congress MLA, was also a potential target, the report says.
BJP Ministers and Friends:
The Wire reported that the numbers of newly-inducted Cabinet Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw –minister of communications, electronics and information technology, and railways – and Prahlad Singh Patel, the MoS for Jal Shakti were also among the 300 numbers from India on the said watchlist between 2017 and 2019.
Vaishnaw's number was reportedly on the radar in 2017, a time when he had not shifted allegiances to the BJP. A number registered in his wife's name was also apparently on the list.
On Monday, the minister came out in defence of the government in Parliament . In a suo motu statement in Lok Sabha, Vaishnaw said that with several checks and balances being in place, "any sort of illegal surveillance" by unauthorised persons is not possible in India.
The numbers of the personal secretary to former Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje Scindia and that of Sanjay Kachroo, an OSD for Smriti Irani between 2014 and 2015, were also on the list. Pravin Togadia, the VHP leader who opposed PM Modi, also had his number on the list.