Pegasus Maker To NDTV: "The Target List In India Is Not Ours, Never Was"

Pegasus case: An international media consortium has published reports claiming NSO Group clients used Pegasus to hack phones of opposition leaders, journalists, human rights activists and others

The Pegasus spyware programme is developed by Israel-based NSO Group (Representational)

New Delhi:

The NSO Group - the Israeli technology firm that developed and sells the Pegasus spyware programme - told NDTV on Tuesday that the list of Indian phone numbers reportedly targeted for surveillance by the government with its software is "not ours, never was".

A NSO spokesperson told NDTV the company is "not related to the list published by Forbidden Stories (the Paris-based non-profit group that worked with Amnesty International to obtain the database of 50,000 phone numbers that triggered this controversy)".

"It is not a NSO list, and it never was - it is fabricated information. It is not a list of targets or potential targets of NSO's customers," the spokesperson said, adding "repeated reliance on this list and association of people on this list as potential surveillance targets is false and misleading."

"The company does not have access to the data of its customers," the spokesperson also said, adding, however, that clients "are obligated to provide us with such information under investigation".

"If and when NSO receives credible proof of misuse of its technologies, it will conduct a thorough investigation, as it always had and always will," the spokesperson said.

On Monday the company put out a statement denying all allegations after an explosive report from The Wire said over 300 Indian phone numbers - including those belonging to opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi and senior journalists - were potential targets for hacking. It said it only offered its programme to "vetted governments for the sole purpose of saving lives through preventing crime and terror acts".

Over the past few days an international media consortium - which includes The Wire and The Washington Post - have published reports that claim clients of the NSO Group used Pegasus to hack, or try to hack, phones of opposition leaders, journalists, human rights activists and others.

In India, The Wire reported, several of these phone numbers were added to the list between 2017 and 2019, and in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

The list, media reports claim, include Congress MP Rahul Gandhi and poll strategist Prashant Kishor (who masterminded the Trinamool's victory over the BJP in Bengal). Forensic analysis indicated Mr Kishor's phone was compromised as recently as July 14, The Wire reported.

Another name is Ashok Lavasa - the former Election Commissioner who recorded a dissenting opinion when the election body ruled in favour of the Prime Minister during the 2019 election.

The Wire said there was not enough evidence to suggest all phones on the list had been hacked, but forensic tests on some phones associated with target numbers revealed signs of Pegasus activity.

The government hit back strongly; a source in the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology told NDTV the government had "nothing to fear and nothing to hide".

Speaking in Parliament on Monday, IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw - whose number was also on the list, according to The Wire, slammed the release of "over-the-top" media reports, and said it "can't be a coincidence" they were published a day before the start of Parliament's monsoon session.

The row prompted fierce protests from the opposition on Monday - the first day of the Parliament's monsoon session - with Prime Minister Modi faced with slogans and shouting as he spoke.

Pegasus works by infiltrating phones via 'zero-click' attacks - which do not require interaction from the phone's owner - on or Apple's iMessage or WhatsApp, which is, by some margin, the world's most widely-used instant messaging service, with 400 million users in India alone.

In 2019, WhatsApp said 1,400 users in 20 countries, including Indian journalists and activists, had been targeted by Pegasus in May that year. The NSO Group denied the claims, saying: "Our technology is not designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists."