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India used Pegasus spyware on high-profile journalists, Amnesty says

Investigation finds that Indian government targeted journalists of major publications with notorious spyware
A woman checks the website of Israel-made Pegasus spyware at an office in the Cypriot capital Nicosia on 21 July 2021 (Mario Goldman/AFP)

India's government has used the notorious Pegasus spyware to attack the devices of high-profile journalists in the country, according to an investigation by Amnesty International and The Washington Post.

The findings published on Thursday noted India's repeated use of the spyware against several journalists, including Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of digital media outlet The Wire, and Anand Mangnale, South Asia editor at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). The latest identified case was in October 2023.

NSO is known for the Pegasus software, which turns a user's mobile phone into a snooping device by gaining access to its microphone and camera. The Israeli firm's technology has been used by governments around the world to target political opponents, journalists and activists.

Pegasus can be used to access a phone's messages, emails and photos, and can also be used to eavesdrop on calls, track locations and record videos via the phone's cameras.

"Increasingly, journalists in India face the threat of unlawful surveillance simply for doing their jobs, alongside other tools of repression including imprisonment under draconian laws, smear campaigns, harassment and intimidation," Donncha O Cearbhaill, the head of Amnesty's Security Lab, said in a statement.

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"Despite repeated revelations, there has been a shameful lack of accountability about the use of Pegasus spyware in India which only intensifies the sense of impunity over these human rights violations."

Amnesty's Security Lab found that there was a possibility of renewed Pegasus threats towards Indian individuals in June 2023, and in October, Apple issued a round of notifications to more than 20 journalists and opposition figures in the country that their phones may have been targeted by "state-sponsored attackers".

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Amnesty conducted a forensic analysis on the phones of individuals who received these notifications, including Varadarajan and Mangnale, and found traces of Pegasus spyware activity on devices owned by both of the Indian journalists.

On Mangnale's device, there was evidence of a zero-click attack, referring to an attack where spyware can be remotely installed on a device without the user needing to click on a malicious link.

Middle East Eye reached out to the Indian embassy in Washington for comment, but did not get a response by time of publication. 

Targeted for leading opposition

In July 2022, Amnesty International, Forbidden Stories and a group of international media organisations revealed that Pegasus spyware had been used in hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials, human rights activists and political leaders. The investigative group revealed it had acquired a list of 50,000 phone numbers that appeared to be targets identified by the Israeli company's clients to be spied upon using Pegasus.

A forensic analysis showed that MEE's Turkey bureau chief Ragip Soylu had his phone hacked by Saudi Arabia, using Pegasus. Amnesty said the software was active on Soylu's phone between February and July 2021, accessing it via an iMessage.

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Among leading political figures targeted by the spyware, MEE revealed that Rached Ghannouchi, the speaker of Tunisia's parliament and head of the Ennahda party, had also been a target of Saudi Arabia.

According to the investigation, Mangnale's phone was targeted when he was working on a story about an alleged stock manipulation by a multinational conglomerate in India.

Varadarajan told The Washington Post that he had likely been targeted with the spyware for leading opposition to the detention of a prominent news publisher.

"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," Amnesty's O Cearbhaill said in the statement published on Thursday.

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