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 of the Israeli surveillance technology vendor, NSO Group, The Wire reported.
Such was the apparent interest in Gandhi that the numbers of five of his social friends and acquaintances were also placed on the list of potential targets. None of the five plays any role in politics or public affairs, the report said.
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 non-profit Forbidden Stories and shared with 16 news organisations, including The Wire, The Guardian, Washington Post, Le Monde, and Haaretz.
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.
In the absence of forensics, it is not possible to conclusively establish whether Pegasus was deployed against Gandhi.
At the same time, 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, The Wire said.
Gandhi 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.
Apart from Gandhi’s personal phones, the numbers of two close aides, Alankar Sawai and Sachin Rao, also figure in the leaked database, for mid-2019.
The phone of poll strategist Prashant Kishor was broken into using NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, according to digital forensics conducted by Amnesty International’s Security Lab and shared with The Wire.
In addition, the mobile number of key strategist Abhishek Banerjee, the powerful Trinamool Congress MLA who is also the nephew of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, was also selected as a potential target for surveillance by a government client of NSO Group, an investigation of leaked data by The Wire and its media partners on the Pegasus Project has shown.
Also on the list is Banerjee’s personal secretary.
Their phones, along with that of a close aide to Kishor, were not immediately available for forensic investigation, making it impossible to say definitively whether an attempt to hack them was made.
Since NSO insists that only “vetted governments” can purchase Pegasus, the targetting of Kishor — who was working as an advisor to Mamata Banerjee — is the first iron-clad piece of evidence that this deadly spyware is being used in India by an as yet unidentified agency to gather political information from rivals of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, The Wire said.
Kishor’s current or one-time role as a key political advisor and strategist for a range of opposition parties, including the DMK in Tamil Nadu and the Congress in Punjab, besides the Trinamool, means the agency targeting him is also interested in gathering information about the government’s political opponents in different parts of the country.