On July 18, the Pegasus Project, an investigation led by Paris-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories, Amnesty International, and an international consortium of 17 news organizations, leaked a database of over 50,000 mobile phones that government spyware had targeted for hacking. Many of these numbers were those of journalists, activists, and 14 global world leaders, including France President Emmanuel Macron, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, former Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. In total, the list identified phone numbers of over 600 government officials and politicians from 34 countries whose governments are “known to engage in surveillance of its citizens.”
The company behind the spyware, called Pegasus, is Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO Group, which “creates technology that helps government agencies prevent and investigate terrorism and crime to save thousands of lives around the globe,” according to its website. But, as the investigation revealed, state governments were using the company’s spyware — a military-grade technology that can access photos, call records, messages, microphones, and other data from smartphones — as an illegal cyber-surveillance tool.
NSO Group has denied its involvement in illegal surveillance, stating that the company doesn’t operate the systems it sells to “vetted government customers” and thus, doesn’t have access to the data of its customers’ targets. “The fact that a number appears on that list is in no way indicative of whether that number was selected for surveillance using Pegasus,” the statement added. The Pegasus Project report dispelled that claim but added, however, that only forensic analysis could confirm whether a phone has been hacked. The consortium analyzed 67 phones and found signs of the spyware on 37 phones on the list, out of which 10 are Indian. The shocking findings, touted as “India’s Watergate,” have led to widespread civilian outrage across the country.