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Spyware claims stir protests across India

by The Associated Press | July 21, 2021 at 4:10 a.m.
Congress party workers shout slogans during a protest accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The protests came after an investigation by a global media consortium was published on Sunday. Based on leaked targeting data, the findings provided evidence that the spyware from Israel-based NSO Group, the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire company, was used to allegedly infiltrate devices belonging to a range of targets, including journalists, activists and political opponents in 50 countries. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

NEW DELHI -- Protests flared up in India's Parliament on Tuesday as opposition lawmakers accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists.

The session was disrupted repeatedly as opposition lawmakers shouted slogans against Modi's government and demanded an investigation into how the spyware, known as Pegasus, was used in India.

"This is a national security threat," an opposition Congress party official, Kapil Sibal, said at a news conference.

The protests came after an investigation by a global media consortium was published Sunday. Based on leaked targeting data, the findings provided evidence that the spyware from Israel-based NSO Group, an infamous hacker-for-hire company, was used to infiltrate devices belonging to a range of targets, including journalists, activists and political opponents in 50 countries.

In India, the list of potential surveillance targets included senior Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, at least 40 journalists, a veteran election strategist critical of Modi and a top virologist, according to the investigation.

Newly appointed information technology minister Ashwani Vaishnaw dismissed the allegations Monday, calling them "highly sensational," "over the top" and "an attempt to malign the Indian democracy."

Minutes after his statement in Parliament, India's independent The Wire website revealed that his name also appeared on the list as a potential surveillance target in 2017. He was not a member of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party at that time.

NSO Group has said it sells its spyware only to "vetted government agencies" for use against terrorists and major criminals. The Indian government has so far dodged questions over whether it is a client of the group.

A list of more than 50,000 cellphone numbers was obtained by the Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and the human rights group Amnesty International, which was then shared with 16 news organizations.

Journalists were able to identify more than 1,000 individuals in 50 countries who were supposedly selected by NSO clients for potential surveillance, including 300 verified Indian numbers, The Wire reported.

The source of the leak -- and how it was authenticated -- was not disclosed. A phone number's presence in the data does not necessarily mean an attempt was made to hack a device, Amnesty International said.

In India, the investigation fueled a slew of angry reactions from officials.

Home Minister Amit Shah called the investigation an attempt to "derail India's development trajectory through their conspiracies" and said it was "timed to cause disruptions in Parliament."

The former information technology minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, said there was "not a shred of evidence linking Indian government or the BJP" to the allegations. Prasad called it an international plot to defame India.

Rights groups say the findings bolster accusations that not just autocratic regimes but also democratic governments, including India, have used the spyware for political ends.

It has also intensified concerns of a democratic backsliding and erosion of civil liberties under Modi.

Congress party workers shout slogans during a protest accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The protests came after an investigation by a global media consortium was published on Sunday. Based on leaked targeting data, the findings provided evidence that the spyware from Israel-based NSO Group, the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire company, was used to allegedly infiltrate devices belonging to a range of targets, including journalists, activists and political opponents in 50 countries. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
Congress party workers shout slogans during a protest accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The protests came after an investigation by a global media consortium was published on Sunday. Based on leaked targeting data, the findings provided evidence that the spyware from Israel-based NSO Group, the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire company, was used to allegedly infiltrate devices belonging to a range of targets, including journalists, activists and political opponents in 50 countries. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
Congress party workers shout slogans during a protest accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The protests came after an investigation by a global media consortium was published on Sunday. Based on leaked targeting data, the findings provided evidence that the spyware from Israel-based NSO Group, the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire company, was used to allegedly infiltrate devices belonging to a range of targets, including journalists, activists and political opponents in 50 countries. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
Congress party workers shout slogans during a protest accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The protests came after an investigation by a global media consortium was published on Sunday. Based on leaked targeting data, the findings provided evidence that the spyware from Israel-based NSO Group, the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire company, was used to allegedly infiltrate devices belonging to a range of targets, including journalists, activists and political opponents in 50 countries. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
Congress party workers shout slogans during a protest accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The protests came after an investigation by a global media consortium was published on Sunday. Based on leaked targeting data, the findings provided evidence that the spyware from Israel-based NSO Group, the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire company, was used to allegedly infiltrate devices belonging to a range of targets, including journalists, activists and political opponents in 50 countries. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
Congress party workers shout slogans during a protest accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The protests came after an investigation by a global media consortium was published on Sunday. Based on leaked targeting data, the findings provided evidence that the spyware from Israel-based NSO Group, the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire company, was used to allegedly infiltrate devices belonging to a range of targets, including journalists, activists and political opponents in 50 countries. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
Congress party workers shout slogans during a protest accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The protests came after an investigation by a global media consortium was published on Sunday. Based on leaked targeting data, the findings provided evidence that the spyware from Israel-based NSO Group, the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire company, was used to allegedly infiltrate devices belonging to a range of targets, including journalists, activists and political opponents in 50 countries. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
Congress party workers shout slogans during a protest accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The protests came after an investigation by a global media consortium was published on Sunday. Based on leaked targeting data, the findings provided evidence that the spyware from Israel-based NSO Group, the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire company, was used to allegedly infiltrate devices belonging to a range of targets, including journalists, activists and political opponents in 50 countries. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

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