Protests erupt in Indian parliament over Israeli spyware scandal

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NEW DELHI (AP) – India’s parliament sparked protests on Tuesday as opposition lawmakers accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists .

The session was repeatedly interrupted as opposition lawmakers shouted slogans against Modi’s government and demanded an investigation into how the spyware, known as Pegasus, was used in India.

“This is a threat to national security,” opposition party congressman Kapil Sibal told a press conference.

The protests came after the publication on Sunday of an investigation by a global media consortium. Based on targeting data leaks, the results provided evidence that spyware from Israeli group NSO, the world’s most infamous hacking company, was used to allegedly infiltrate devices belonging to a range of targets. , including journalists, activists and politicians. opponents in 50 countries.

In India, the list of potential surveillance targets included Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, at least 40 journalists, a veteran electoral strategist critical of Modi and a leading virologist, according to the survey.

New information technology minister Ashwani Vaishnaw dismissed the allegations on Monday, calling them “very sensational”, “exaggerated” and “an attempt to slander Indian democracy.”

Minutes after his statement to parliament, India’s independent website The Wire – which is part of the media consortium – revealed that his name was also on the list as a potential target for surveillance in 2017. He was not member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the time.

The logo of the Israeli company NSO Group on a building where they had offices in Herzliya, August 25, 2016 (AP Photo / Daniella Cheslow)

NSO Group has stated that it only sells its spyware to “approved government agencies” for use against terrorists and serious criminals. The Indian government has so far dodged questions as to whether it is a client of the group.

A list of over 50,000 cell phone numbers was obtained by the Paris-based nonprofit journalism organization Forbidden Stories and the human rights group Amnesty International, which was then shared with 16 news outlets. .

Journalists were able to identify more than 1,000 people in 50 countries who were allegedly selected by NSO clients for potential surveillance, including 300 verified Indian numbers, reported The Wire.

The source of the leak – and how it was authenticated – has not been disclosed. The presence of a phone number in the data does not necessarily mean that there has been an attempt to hack a device, Amnesty International said.

In India, the investigation fueled a series of angry backlashes from officials.

Indian Home Secretary Amit Shah called the investigation an attempt to “derail India’s development trajectory through their plots” and said it was “programmed to cause disruption in Parliament. “.

Members of the Congress party shout slogans during a protest accusing the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists in New Delhi, India, on July 20, 2021 (AP Photo / Manish Swarup)

Former IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said there was “not a shred of evidence linking the Indian government or the BJP” to the allegations. Prasad called this an international conspiracy to defame India.

Rights groups say the findings reinforce accusations that not only autocratic regimes but also democratic governments, including India, have used spyware for political ends.

It also heightened fears of a democratic setback and an erosion of civil liberties under Modi. Recently, Washington-based Freedom House demoted India, the world’s most populous democracy, from “free” to “partially free”.

Rahul Gandhi, the most influential Indian name revealed so far, was Modi’s main challenger in the general elections of 2014 and 2019. Two of his phone numbers used between mid-2018 and mid-2019, as the elections approached. elections are on the list.

Gandhi no longer has the devices, so it was not possible to analyze them to determine if they had been hacked, The Wire reported. They also found at least nine numbers of people in Gandhi’s circle.

Congress Party Leader Rahul Gandhi, front, along with other high-ranking members of the party take part in a protest against new agricultural laws in New Delhi, India on December 24, 2020 (AP Photo / Manish Swarup)

The list also included Gangandeep Kang, a leading virologist; Prashant Kishor, a longtime political strategist who helped Modi to power in 2014, but is now one of his strongest opponents; and Ashok Lavasa, former senior official of the Indian Election Commission.

The phone numbers of a Supreme Court staff member who accused former chief justice Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in 2019 were also in the data, just days after recording his allegations. Gogoi was later cleared of the allegations, which he had denied.

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