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New Forensic Report Finds ‘Damning Revelations’ of ‘Repeated’ Pegasus use to Target Indian Scribes

The report by Amnesty International’s Security Lab, in partnership with The Washington Post, identified cases occurring in India as recently as October 2023.

New Delhi:new forensic report said it had found “damning revelations” of repeated use of Israeli NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to target Indian journalists.

The investigation done by Amnesty International, in partnership with The Washinton Post, said “Forensic investigations by Amnesty International’s Security Lab confirmed that Siddharth Varadarajan, Founding Editor of The Wire, and Anand Mangnale, the South Asia Editor at The Organised Crime and Corruption Report Project (OCCRP), were among the journalists recently targeted with Pegasus spyware on their iPhones, with the latest identified case occurring in October 2023.

According to the report, Amnesty International’s Security Lab said it first got indications of Pegasus spyware threat on individuals during a routine technical monitoring exercise in June 2023.

This was followed by several politicians, mostly from Opposition parties, and journalists flagging receiving alerts by Apple, cautioning them against being targeting by “State-sponsored attackers.”

Read Also: Apple Alert: Threat Notifications Strike at Heart of Indian Democracy, Says Apar Gupta

“As a result, Amnesty International’s Security Lab undertook a forensic analysis on the phones of individuals around the world who received these notifications, including Siddharth Varadarajan and Anand Mangnale. It found traces of Pegasus spyware activity on devices owned by both Indian journalists.

The Security Lab recovered evidence from Anand Mangnale’s device of a zero-click exploit which was sent to his phone over iMessage on 23 August 2023, and designed to covertly install the Pegasus spyware. The phone was running iOS 16.6, the latest version available at the time,” it said in a report.

A zero-click exploit refers to malicious software that enables spyware to be installed on a device without requiring any user action from the target, such as clicking on a link, it said.

According to the report, the “attempted targeting of Anand Mangnale’s phone happened at a time when he was working on a story about an alleged stock manipulation by a large multinational conglomerate in India.

The Amnesty Tech Security Lab said a “more detailed technical analysis” and “forensic evidence’ were available on its website.

As regards Siddharth Varadarajan, co-founder of news portal, The Wire, this is the second time that his phone has been targeted by the Pegasus spyware.

“Amnesty International has previously documented how Siddharth Varadarajan was targeted and infected with Pegasus spyware in 2018. His devices were later forensically analysed by a technical committee established by the Supreme Court of India in 2021 in the wake of the Pegasus Project revelations.”

“In 2022, the committee concluded its investigation, but the Supreme Court has not made the findings of the technical report public. The court noted, however, that the Indian authorities “did not cooperate” with the technical committee’s investigations.”

However, Varadarajan was targeted again with Pegasus on October 16, 2023, said the report, adding that the “same attacker-controlled email address used in the Pegasus attack against Anand Mangnale was also identified on Siddharth Varadarajan’s phone, confirming that both journalists were targeted by the same Pegasus customer.”

“Targeting journalists solely for doing their work amounts to an unlawful attack on their privacy and violates their right to freedom of expression. All states, including India, have an obligation to protect human rights by protecting people from unlawful surveillance,” said Donncha Ó Cearbhaill, head of Amnesty’s Tech Security Lab.

The Washington Post reporters said they reached out to NSO which said:

“While NSO cannot comment on specific customers, we stress again that all of them are vetted law enforcement and intelligence agencies that license our technologies for the sole purpose of fighting terror and major crime. The company’s policies and contracts provide mechanisms to avoid targeting journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders or political dissidents that are not involved in terror or serious crimes. The company has no visibility to the targets, nor to the collected intelligence.”

As earlier, the NSO Group reiterated that it sells its products “only to government intelligence and law enforcement agencies”.

The report by Amnesty International called on all countries, including India, to “ban the use and export of highly invasive spyware, which cannot be independently audited or limited in its functionality.”

It also called for the Supreme Court panel’s report on Pegasus use in India be immediately released, and the Indian government conduct an immediate, independent, transparent, and impartial investigation into all cases of targeted surveillance, including into these latest revelations.

Meanwhile, a report published in The Washington Post regarding recent Apple alerts to Opposition politicians and journalists, some top leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had called for an investigation into the security of Apple devices, alleging that the “company’s internal threat algorithms were faulty,”

As per the WaPo report, citing “three people with knowledge of the matter”, the Narendra Modi government “called Apple’s India representatives to demand that the company help soften the political impact of the warnings. They also summoned an Apple security expert from outside the country to a meeting in New Delhi, where government representatives pressed the Apple official to come up with alternative explanations for the warnings to users.”

Recall that despite a furore in Parliament and the matter reaching the Supreme Court, the Modi government has still not given any clarity on the use of Pegasus in the country, despite NSO reiterating that it is sold “only to governments”.

In fact, in Parliament, after the Opposition raised a demand for a probe, a senior Cabinet Minister skirted the issue, saying the matter was sub judice.

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