New Delhi, July 20 : The telephone numbers of several prominent activists are part of a leaked database accessed by the Pegasus Project, which include individuals confirmed to have been targeted with the Israel based NSO Group's spyware, The Wire reported.
The activists whose phone numbers appear in the leaked records include Ambedkarite activist Ashok Bharti; former Jawahar Lal Nehru University students Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and Banjyotsna Lahiri; academic and chronicler of life in Naxal-dominated regions, Bela Bhatia; railway union leader Shiv Gopal Mishra; anti-coal mining activist Alok Shukla; Delhi University professor Saroj Giri; Bastar-based peace activist Shubhranshu Choudhary and Bihar-based activist Ipsa Shatakshi.
Without digital forensics, it is not possible to conclusively establish whether their phones were hacked or infected. But their appearance on the list suggests that they were persons of interest to an unidentified client of the NSO Group that was focused on India.
The NSO says it only sells its Pegasus spyware -- classified as military-grade surveillance technology by the Israeli ministry of defence -- to "vetted governments". The Narendra Modi government has consistently refused to declare whether it is a client of NSO.
Ashok Bharti, who is the chairman of the All India Ambedkar Mahasabha, an umbrella association of Dalit rights' groups, had led the nation-wide Bharat Bandh on April 2, 2018 against a Supreme Court ruling, which he claimed took away the teeth of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The ruling sparked massive demonstrations across the country, and the Bharat Bandh claimed 11 lives and left hundreds injured as the police took on the Dalit protesters.
A few months later, Bharti gave another call for a nation-wide strike on August 9. It was in the months leading up to this strike that his phone number was selected as a possible candidate for surveillance, the report said.
In 2019, WhatsApp had stated that four of the activists mentioned above -- Saroj Giri, Bela Bhatia, Alok Shukla and Shubranshu Choudhary -- were affected by a Pegasus attack that took place through a specific vulnerability in the company's security. Digital forensics conducted as part of the Pegasus Project have shed light on a wider range of attack vectors, including zero-click iMessage exploits.
Shiv Gopal Mishra, who is a secretary of the joint consultative machinery for the Central government employees' union and general secretary of the All India Railwaymen's Federation, was also of interest to the India client of NSO Group in 2018 and 2019. He said he was not surprised that he may have been under surveillance, the report said.
Alok Shukla, convenor of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (CBA), is also on the list of potential spyware targets. A vocal rights activist in Central India, he has participated in several anti-mining protests in the state.
"In the past few years, I have organised and led several protests against the Adani Group for its mindless mining project," Shukla told The Wire. This, he said, must have made him a target of surveillance under the past Raman Singh-led BJP government in the state, as per the report.
Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid were two of the three students who were charged with sedition while they were doing their PhD in JNU. Since then, Anirban told The Wire, both of them, along with Banojyotsna Lahiri, have been involved in various organisational activities against escalating hate crimes in the country.