The selection of Indian numbers largely commenced around the time of Narendra Modis trip to Israel in 2017, the first visit to the country by an Indian Prime Minister and a marker of the burgeoning relationship between the two nations, including billions of dollars in deals between Delhi and Israeli defence industries, The Guardian reported.
Modi and the then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were pictured during the trip, walking barefoot together on a beach. Days before, Indian targets had started being selected, The Guardian said.
Analysis of the more than 1,000 mostly Indian phone numbers selected for potential targeting by the NSO Group client using the Pegasus spyware that also hacked poll strategist Prashant Kishor strongly indicate that intelligence agencies within the Indian government were behind the target selection, the report added.
Other numbers identified in the records included those of known priorities of the country’s security agencies, including Kashmiri separatist leaders, Pakistani diplomats, Chinese journalists, Sikh activists and businesspeople known to be the subject of police investigations.
The client also identified two numbers registered to or once known to have been used by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, the report said.
At least two employees of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based in India, including a US citizen, were also identified, along with Gagandeep Kang, a well-known virologist and the first Indian woman to be accepted into the UK’s Royal Society.
M. Hari Menon, the director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Indian operations, was also selected as a target, alongside several researchers and campaigners working for anti-tobacco NGOs.
The motive for the scrutiny is unclear, though the Modi government has expressed suspicion of foreign funding for charities, research institutes and NGOs and has sought to tighten restrictions for bringing in money from overseas, The Guardian said.
NSO has always maintained it “does not operate the systems that it sells to vetted government customers, and does not have access to the data of its customers’ targets”. NSO said it would “continue to investigate all credible claims of misuse and take appropriate action”.
NSO markets Pegasus as a tool for fighting terrorism and crime, but the inclusion of a major Indian opposition leader in the records — alongside political staffers, labour unionists, Tibetan Buddhist clerics, social justice campaigners and a woman who accused India’s senior most judge of sexual harassment — raises troubling questions about the way the hacking software may have been used in India.