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Exclusive: A 'Pegasus Project' Primer for the Readers of the India Cable
142 Names Revealed On Snoop List So Far
A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal
Pegasus Project: A Primer for the Readers of the India Cable
Sometime in the middle of March, a reporter I knew and trusted reached out to schedule a meeting with me and my fellow founding editor at The Wire, M.K. Venu on behalf of the French media non-profit, Forbidden Stories. She did not say anything about the purpose of the meeting but on the appointed day, two Forbidden Stories editors joined us via a secure link to explain that they had good reason to believe our smartphones might be infected with Pegasus spyware.
They asked if we would agree to have our phones forensically examined, which we did after first understanding what the process would involve. My current iPhone turned out clean but the test showed that the instrument I used till March 2020 showed signs of infection. Venu’s test was initially inconclusive but a second test confirmed the presence of Pegasus, including signs of very recent intrusions.
Forbidden Stories said that many more Indian numbers were believed to have been compromised and asked whether The Wire would be interested in joining hands to work on an international collaborative investigation into the use of spyware against journalists and others in different countries. We knew the work of Forbidden Stories, founded by the award-winning documentary maker Laurent Richard, and readily agreed.
A meeting of all the media partners was planned in Paris for May. The Wire’s business and tech editor, Anuj Srivas, was meant to travel to France for this but could not because he got Covid. And then there was the travel ban, which meant no one else from India could go either. However, another colleague, Kabir Agarwal, who is currently based in Europe, was there to represent us, while I was able to join remotely, in a secure fashion for some of the discussions. That is where we learned about the nature of the leaked database and the ambitious, even daunting, scope of the project.
The task facing us as reporters was this: identify as many of the numbers on the database as we could and then investigate the why and whodunit part of the story. Forbidden Stories’ own team had made a decent head start in identifying some of the journalists and others on the list. That is how they reached out to The Wire. But there was a lot of work to do and the deadline we collectively set at the May meeting was tight. Indian home minister Amit Shah would later claim July 18 was chosen as the day to begin publishing so as to disrupt the opening day of parliament and the Modi government’s great plans to make India a developed country. He called us “disruptors and obstructers”. This claim is laughable given that the government decided to pick July 19 as the opening of the monsoon session only at the end of June. In any case, the database pertains not just to India but to France, Morocco, Mexico, the UAE and the idea that the Pegasus Project was aimed solely at Modi is clearly preposterous.
The Wire assembled a small team and, in tandem with Forbidden Stories, and 15 other media partners, started slowly populating the database with names. These names made it clear that a lot of reporting would be required to validate and tell the story, so we roped in our diplomatic editor, Devirupa Mitra, whose name was also on the list, as well as deputy editor Sukanya Shantha, national affairs editor Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty and political editor Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta. For some of the reporting, for example, in Jammu and Kashmir, we roped in trusted stringers like Jehangir Ali. We were also fortunate enough to have on the ‘India arm’ of the project Joanna Slater, who was the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Delhi, and her colleague Niha Masih, besides Michael Safi of the Guardian and Julien Bouissou of Le Monde, who had both been posted in India earlier and were able to work crucial elements of the investigation. Together with Phineas Rueckert of Forbidden Stories, who helped coordinate the effort, this team made quick progress.
Collectively, we approached the list using a variety of means. TrueCaller and CallApp sometimes provided vital clues but could also mislead. Internet searches and WhatsApp user profiles provided further breadcrumbs. Our own phone directories, and the directories of other ‘well networked’ individuals proved to be valuable sources. A lot of good old-fashioned reporting was also involved in filling the blanks and cross-checking numbers for which we were somewhat certain. By the time we reached our deadline of July 18, we had managed to verify more than 300 of the +91 numbers on the database. This was, of course, still a little less than one-third of the numbers we had started with but many of the unverified numbers were either no longer working or turned out to be dead-ends. Of course, The Wire is still working on the list
Apart from establishing a secure means of communicating among ourselves, a challenge we overcame but about which we will say nothing more, there was the complex task of verifying as many numbers as we could and then deciding whom among the targets we could reach out to for conducting a forensic examination of their phones. There was an obvious risk here: ensuring the confidentiality of the project was paramount, but the more individual targets we notified, the greater was the danger of word leaking out.
Amnesty International’s technical assistance was an essential part of the project, a key ‘fact checking’ element that we hoped would help us move from a list of probable surveillance targets to a list of those with confirmed Pegasus infections.
There was an additional technical hurdle: Unlike iPhones, Android instruments, which run on Google’s proprietary operating system, do not save the kind of logs Amnesty’s forensic tools need to identify Pegasus. And many of the Indians on the list had Androids. Quite a few potential victims had also changed instruments between the time they appeared on our list and when we approached them. And many did not have access to the earlier instrument any more.
The Wire finally approached around 40-50 of the roughly 300 people we identified and were able to conduct forensics on about 21-22 phones. Of these, 8 phones showed signs of the presence of Pegasus spyware and another two showed signs of an attempted infection. This was a 50% strike rate, and provided important validation. The phone of Sushant Singh, a contributor to The India Cable, was among the eight infected instruments, as was the iPhone of opposition political strategist, Prashant Kishor.
The fact that some of the names on our database had either gone public about being notified by WhatsApp in 2019 that their phones had been targeted by Pegasus (during a two week window that stretched from April 29, 2019 and May 10, 2019) or were able to share this information now gave us additional confirmation about the robustness of our data.
There was a third level of fact-check that the project was able to rely on: the time stamps Pegasus left on the phones we forensically examines appeared to be correlated, in many cases, to the timestamps our database contained alongside their associated telephone numbers.
The final stage of the project involved contacting NSO Group, which sells Pegasus, and the governments involved to seek their response.
On July 18, The Wire – in collaboration with its media partners – began revealing the names of people who were either persons of interest or forensically identified as having been targeted by clients of the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware.
The publication followed a schedule that had been collectively agreed upon, and involved harmonising the differing interests and time zones of each of the media partners – not always an easy task!
Since the story broke, it has become clear that the official use of military grade spyware has gone out of control and has been deployed to target individuals for political and other reasons that have no connection to a national security threat or public order emergency. These are usually the conditions in which surveillance in India may be lawfully authorised. Pegasus, in any case, involves hacking – a criminal offence under India’s Information Technology Act – and no lawful authorisation for hacking is permitted by statute. This is why the Modi government has tied itself in knots over the Pegasus Project exposé. It cannot acknowledge using Pegasus, because that would be tantamount to breaking the law, and it certainly cannot admit targeting journalists, opposition political leaders like Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, besides its own ministers and the former Supreme Court staffer who accused Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment. But it cannot accept that individuals have been targeted - even when there is forensic evidence – because then it will have to explain why it is so sanguine about the possibility that a foreign agency or government has attempted such pervasive and intrusive surveillance in India.
The West Bengal government has now set up a formal judicial commission of inquiry into the Pegasus Project revelations headed by a former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Madan B. Lokur and former Calcutta high court judge, Justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya. Petitions have also been filed in the Supreme Court and more are likely to follow, demanding a formal, court-supervised investigation.
The reason the revelations have triggered such a strong response from the opposition, the media and civil society is because the use of spyware in the manner in which the leaked database indicates represents an assault on not just individual privacy but the very foundations of democracy. If unchecked, this is an abuse of power that will affect the rights of every citizen.
Pegasus Project: 142 Names Revealed By The Wire On Snoop List So Far
Until now, spread across several stories – all of which can be found here – The Wire has revealed the names of 142 people in India who were actual or probable targets for surveillance by the Indian client or clients of the NSO Group. All of them are listed below.
To be sure, the presence of a number in the database does not imply that the person’s device was successfully targeted. Unless evidence is established through a forensic examination, it is impossible to say if there was an attempted or successful hack. Therefore, an important distinction has been made to differentiate the names that appear on the list. A potential or probable target is someone whose number appears on the list, but whose device has not been forensically analysed by Amnesty. A person is classified as a target if their phones show evidence of an attempted or successful hack.
For detailed stories on these names, click here.
The Wire has confirmed the numbers of at least 40 journalists who were either targets or potential targets for surveillance. Forensic analysis was conducted on the phones of seven journalists, of which five showed traces of a successful infection by Pegasus.
1. M.K. Venu: A founding editor of The Wire. His phone was also forensically analysed and traces of Pegasus were found.
2. Sushant Singh: Former Indian Express journalist who writes on national security. After a forensic analysis of his phone, Amnesty arrived at the conclusion that it had been compromised.
3. Siddharth Varadarajan: A founding editor of The Wire, his phone was forensically analysed. The analysis showed that the phone was compromised by Pegasus.
4. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta: Former EPW editor, who now writes for Newsclick. His phone was compromised by Pegasus, forensic analysis revealed.
5. S.N.M. Abdi: Former Outlook journalist, whose phone was compromised according to forensic analysis.
6. Vijaita Singh:The Hindu journalist who covers the home ministry. Forensic analysis of her phone showed evidence of an attempted hack, but no evidence of a successful compromise.
7. Smita Sharma: Former TV18 anchor. Forensic analysis found evidence of an attempted hack but nothing to indicate that her phone was successfully infected.
8. Shishir Gupta: Executive editor at Hindustan Times
9. Rohini Singh: Freelance journalist who has written several exposes for The Wire about controversial business dealings of politicians or their family members.
10. Devirupa Mitra:The Wire‘s diplomatic editor.
11. Prashant Jha: Views editor of Hindustan Times, formerly the bureau chief.
12. Prem Shankar Jha: A veteran journalist who held editorial positions at Hindustan Times, the Times of India and several other newspapers. He is a regular contributor to The Wire.
13. Swati Chaturvedi: Freelance journalist who has contributed to The Wire. She wrote a book about the infamous BJP IT Cell.
14. Rahul Singh: Defence correspondent for Hindustan Times.
15. Aurangzeb Naqshbandi: A political reporter who formerly worked for Hindustan Times and covered the Congress party.
16. Ritika Chopra: A journalist for the Indian Express who covers the education and Election Commission beats.
17. Muzamil Jaleel: Another Indian Express journalist who covers Kashmir.
18. Sandeep Unnithan:India Today journalist who reports on defence and the Indian military.
19. Manoj Gupta: Editor of investigations and security affairs at TV18.
20. J. Gopikrishnan: An investigative reporter with The Pioneer, he broke the 2G telecom scam.
21. Saikat Datta: Formerly a national security reporter.
22. Ifthikar Gilani: Former DNA reporter who reports on Kashmir.
23. Manoranjan Gupta: Northeast-based editor in chief of Frontier TV.
24. Sanjay Shyam: A Bihar-based journalist.
25.Jaspal Singh Heran: An octogenarian who is the editor-in-chief of the Ludhiana-based Punjabi daily Rozana Pehredar.
26. Roopesh Kumar Singh: A freelance based in Jharkhand’s Ramgarh.
27. Deepak Gidwani: Former correspondent of DNA, Lucknow.
28. Sumir Kaul: A journalist for news agency PTI.
29. Shabir Hussain: A Delhi-based political commentator from Kashmir.
Politicians, political figures or individual linked to them
1. Rahul Gandhi: The Congress party leader who was presumed prime ministerial candidate for the past two general elections.
2. Alankar Sawai: A close aide of Rahul Gandhi.
3. Sachin Rao: Another aide of Rahul Gandhi who is a member of the Congress Working Committee.
4. Prashant Kishor: An election strategist who has worked for several political parties, including the BJP and the Congress. His phone was forensically analysed and showed signs of a successful hack.
5. Abhishek Banerjee: A Trinamool Congress MP who is the nephew of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
6. Ashwini Vaishnaw: A former IAS officer who was made a Union cabinet minister in the recent expansion.
7. Prahlad Singh Patel: Another cabinet minister in the Union government, his wife, secretaries, assistants, cook and gardener, etc.
8. Pravin Togadia: Former head of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
9. Pradeep Awasthi: Personal secretary to former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia.
10. Sanjay Kachroo: A corporate executive who was chosen by then human resource development minister Smriti Irani as her officer on special duty in 2014, but was never formally appointed. Listed along with his father and minor son.
11. G. Parameshwara: Deputy chief minister in the JD(S)-Congress coalition government in Karnataka, which was toppled after several MLAs defected to the BJP.
12: Satish: Personal secretary to H.D. Kumaraswamy, who was chief minister of Karnataka.
13. Venkatesh: Personal secretary to Siddaramaiah, who was the Congress chief minister of Karnataka before Kumaraswamy.
14. Manjunath Muddegowda: Security personnel of former prime minister and JD(S) president H.D. Devegowda.
1. Ashok Lavasa: A career bureaucrat, he was a potential target of surveillance when he was an election commissioner.
Activists, lawyers and academicians
1. Hany Babu M.T.: Professor at Delhi University who is an accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
2. Rona Wilson: A prisoners’ rights activist who is another accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
3. Vernon Gonsalves: A rights activist. He is also accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
4. Anand Teltumbde: An academic and civil liberties activist who is accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
5. Shoma Sen: Retired professor and one of the accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
6. Gautam Navlakha: A journalist and rights activist who is accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
7. Arun Ferreira: A lawyer who is also accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
8. Sudha Bhardwaj: Activist and lawyer and accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
9. Pavana: The daughter of Telugu poet Varavara Rao, who is accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
10. Minal Gadling: The wife of lawyer Surendra Gadling, who is accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
11. Nihalsing Rathod: A lawyer and associate of Surendra Gadling.
12. Jagadish Meshram: Another lawyer who is associated with Surendra Gadling.
13. Maruti Kurwatkar: An accused in several cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. He was represented by Surendra Gadling.
14. Shalini Gera: A lawyer who has represented Sudha Bharadwaj.
15. Ankit Grewal: A close legal associate of Sudha Bharadwaj.
16. Jaison Cooper: Kerala-based rights activist who is a friend of Anand Teltumbde.
17. Rupali Jadhav: A member of cultural troupe Kabir Kala Manch.
18. Lalsu Nagoti: A lawyer who is a close associate of Mahesh Raut, who is accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
19. Soni Sori: Tribal rights activist who is based in Bastar.
20. Lingaram Kodopi: A journalist and the nephew of Soni Sori.
21. Degree Prasad Chouhan: An anti-caste activist who is the Chhattisgarh state president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
22. Rakesh Ranjan: An assistant professor at the Sri Ram College of Commerce.
23. Ashok Bharti: Chairman of the All India Ambedkar Mahasabha, an umbrella association of Dalit rights’ groups.
24. Umar Khalid: Former student of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). He was first arrested on sedition charges during the infamous JNU sloganeering case. He is now in jail, awaiting trial as an accused in the Delhi riots conspiracy case.
25. Anirban Bhattacharya: Another former JNU student who was arrested along with Khalid on sedition charges.
26. Banjyotsna Lahiri: Also a JNU student.
27. Bela Bhatia: A lawyer and human rights activist based in Chhattisgarh.
28. Shiv Gopal Mishra: A railway union leader.
29. Anjani Kumar: Delhi-based labour rights activist.
30. Alok Shukla: An anti-coal mining activist and convenor of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan.
31. Saroj Giri: A Delhi University professor.
32. Shubhranshu Choudhary: A Bastar-based peace activist.
33. Sandeep Kumar Rai: Former BBC journalist and trade union activist.
34. Khalid Khan: A colleague of Sandeep Kumar Rai.
35. Ipsa Shatakshi: A Jharkhand-based activist.
37. S.A.R. Geelani: Delhi University professor who was convicted and later acquitted in the parliament bombing case. His phone was forensically analysed and showed signs of an infection by Pegasus.
38. G. Haragopal: A retired professor who taught at the University of Hyderabad. He was chairman of Saibaba Defence Committee. Three of his phones were forensically analysed and the results were inconclusive.
39. Vasantha Kumari: The wife of former Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba, who was convicted for links with a banned Maoist organisation.
40. Rakesh Ranjan: An assistant professor at Delhi University. He was a supporter of the Saibaba Defence Committee.
41. Jagdeep Chhokar: Co-founder of the watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms.
1. A former Supreme Court staffer: The woman had accused then chief justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment. Several members of her family were also potential targets for surveillance.
Figures from the Northeast
1. Samujjal Bhattacharjee: An advisor to the All Assam Students Union and member of the high level committee to look into the implementation of Clause Six of the Assam Accord.
2. Anup Chetia: A leader of the United Liberation Front of Assam.
3. Malem Ningthouja: A Delhi-based writer who is from Manipur.
1. Atem Vashum: A leader of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-Isak Muivah) who is assumed to be the successor to the group’s chairman Th. Muivah.
2. Apam Muivah: Another NSCN (I-M) leader who is Th. Muivah’s newphew.
3. Anthony Shimray: The commander in chief of the Naga Army of NSCN (I-M).
4. Phunthing Shimrang: The former commander in chief of the NSCN (I-M)’s Naga Army.
5. Kitovi Zhimomi: Convenor of the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs). The Narendra Modi government was in parleys with the groups to find ‘one solution’ to the Naga issue.
Scientists or those involved in the health sector
1. Gagandeep Kang: One of India’s foremost virologists who was involved in the fight against the Nipah virus.
2. Hari Menon: The Indian head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
CBI officers and individuals linked to them
1. Alok Verma: Former chief of the Central Bureau of Investigation, Verma was added to the list soon after he was ousted by the Modi government. The personal telephone numbers of his wife, daughter and son-in-law would eventually get placed on the list too, making it a total of 8 numbers from this one family.
2. Rakesh Asthana: Asthana, then a senior CBI officer, was added to the list the same time as Verma. He is seen to be close to the Modi dispensation and currently heads the BSF.
3. A.K. Sharma: Another senior CBI official, added to the list at the same time as Asthana and Verma.
Businesspersons linked to defence sector
1. Anil Ambani: Reliance ADAG chairman. The phone numbers that have been used by Anil Ambani were added to the list in 2018, when controversy over the Rafale deal had intensified.
2. Tony Jesudasan: Corporate communications chief at ADAG. His number was added at the same time as Ambani’s. A number used by Jesudasan’s wife is also on the list.
3. Venkata Rao Posina: Dassault Aviation’s representative in India.
4. Inderjit Sial: Former Saab India head.
5. Pratyush Kumar: Boeing India boss.
6. Harmanjit Nagi: Head of the French energy firm EDF.
Tibetan officials, activists, clerics in India
1. Tempa Tsering: Dalai Lama’s long-term envoy in New Delhi.
2. Tenzin Taklha: Senior aide of the Dalai Lama’s.
3. Chimmey Rigzen: Senior aide of the Dalai Lama’s.
4. Lobsang Sangay: Former head of the Tibetan government in exile.
1. Bilal Lone: A separatist leader and brother of Peoples Conference leader Sajad Lone. His phone was forensically examined. Even though the device he was using is not the same as the one he used when he was potentially targeted as per the leaked database, forensic analysis revealed signs of Pegasus spyware.
2. Tariq Bukhari: Brother of Apni Party leader Altaf Bukhari. He is a businessman and political leader who was questioned by the NIA in April 2019 for a ‘terror funding’ case.
3. Syed Naseem Geelani: A scientist who is the son of prominent separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
4. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq: A separatist leader and head of the Hurriyat Conference, he is the chief cleric of the Jama Masjid.
5. Waqar Bhatti: Prominent human rights activist.
6. Zaffar Akbar Bhat: An influential Shia cleric who is associated with the Hurriyat and a prominent separatist leader.
National security figures
1. K.K. Sharma: He was the head of the Border Security Force (BSF) when he was selected as a potential target of surveillance.
2. Jagdish Maithani: BSF inspector general who was integral to the Union home ministry’s comprehensive integrated border management system (CIBMS) or smart fencing project.
3. Jitendra Kumar Ojha: An senior official from the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). He was selected as a potential target of surveillance after he was eased out of service in January 2018 and moved the Central Administrative Tribunal against this decision.
4. Colonel Mukul Dev: An army officer who took on the government order that scrapped free rations for officers who are posted in peace areas.
5. Colonel Amit Kumar: Another army officer who filed a petition in the Supreme Court on behalf of 356 Army personnel against what they apprehended was an impending dilution of the Armed Forces (Special Forces) Act (AFSPA).
Bureaucrats, officials from investigating agencies
1. Rajeshwar Singh: Senior Enforcement Directorate officer who led several high-profile investigations conducted by his agency. His wife and both his sisters were also potential targets of surveillance.
2. Abha Singh: Rajeshwar Singh’s sister, who is a lawyer in Mumbai. Her mobile phone was forensically analysed but the results proved inconclusive.
3. V.K. Jain: A former Indian Administrative Service officer who worked as a personal assistant to Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.
1. Rakesh Tiwary: The current chief of the Bihar Cricket Association.
1. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador: He is now the president of Mexico, but was targeted before his election in 2018. Several of his aides were also targeted.
2. Emmanuel Macron: The president of France.
3. Imran Khan: The prime minister of Pakistan.
4. Mostafa Madbouly: The prime minister of Egypt.
5. Saad-Eddine El Othmani: The prime minister of Morocco.
6. Barham Salih: The president of Iraq.
7. Cyril Ramaphosa: The president of South Africa.
8. Mohammed VI: Morocco’s king.
9. Saad Hariri: Former prime minister of Lebanon.
10: Ruhakana Rugunda: Former prime minister of Uganda.
11. Noureddine Bedoui: Former prime minister of Algeria.
12. Charles Michel: Former prime minister of Belgium who is currently the president of the European Council.
13. Panah Huseynov: Former prime minister of Azerbaijan.
14. Felipe Calderon: Former Mexican president.
People linked to Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi dissident who wrote for the Washington Post. He was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Turkey by assassins who were allegedly sent by the Saudi government. Several people who were associated with him or the investigation into his deaths were targets or potential targets for surveillance.
1. Hatice Cengiz: A Turkish doctorate student who was engaged to Jamal Khashoggi. Her phone was analysed forensically.
2. Hanan Elatr: She was married to Khashoggi. Her phone was also forensically analysed.
3. Wadah Khanfar: The former director general of Al Jazeera television network. His phone was forensically analysed.
4. Turan Kislakci: A Turkish journalist who introduced Khashoggi to Cengiz.
5. Irfan Fidan: The Turkish chief prosecutor in charge of investigations into Khashoggi’s murder.
Individuals linked to Dubai ruler
1. Sheikha Latifa: A member of the Dubai royal family and the daughter of UAE’s prime minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. When she attempted to flee her father’s custody, she was captured by Indian forces near Goa and sent back to Dubai.
2. Haya bint Hussein: Estranged wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.
The Pegasus Project is a collaborative investigation that involves more than 80 journalists from 17 news organisations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Read all our coverage here.