Election strategist Prashant Kishor was today revealed to be among the hundreds of names in India targeted by Israeli spyware 'Pegasus' for alleged surveillance through infected mobile phones. Digital forensics reveals his phone was hacked during the recent Bengal election, in which he worked with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, said The Wire, which is part of a global media consortium that exposed the snooping scandal.
Prashant Kishor said his phone was "still being hacked" although he had changed his handset multiple times. "We used to suspect snooping but never realised hacking, that too from 2017 to 2021. Although I changed my handset five times, as the evidence suggests, hacking continues," he told NDTV.
According to forensic analysis cited in The Wire report, Mr Kishor's phone was compromised as recently as July 14. He has been in talks with the Congress.
The ace strategist played a big role in the BJP's 2014 campaign that catapulted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power. He has since worked with a range of clients ranged against the BJP.
Recently, he was credited with helping Mamata Banerjee defeat the BJP in Bengal. Investigations reveal Mr Kishor's phone was compromised as recently as July 13, the day he met with Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi in Delhi. "In fact, a hack of Kishor's phone occurred even on the date that The Wire met him and AI helped conduct forensic analysis on it," The Wire said.
The forensic examination of his current phone showed that unsuccessful attempts were made to initiate a Pegasus attack on his phone in 2018, just months before the 2019 general election. The full extent of the use of Pegasus against him is not visible forensically as he no longer uses the device and only traces from 2018 transferred to his current iPhone via backup are visible.
Amnesty's forensic analysis found "traces of infection" on Mr Kishor's phone on April 28, just a day before the last round of voting in the eight-phase Bengal election in March-April.
The Wire says traces of Pegasus on Mr Kishor's phone were also detected for 14 days in June and 12 days in July.
Sources in I-PAC, Mr Kishor's organsiation, said: "We knew he and our entire organization is under surveillance but hardly realised the phone was hacked for so long ..And now when we look back then especially during the Tamil Nadu elections when we were overseeing the DMK campaign, our campaign plan was leaked out several times and ultimately a time came when Prashant and all of us stopped using laptop or WhatsApp and through verbal communications crafted the entire campaign in the last few months of the polls."
Besides Mr Kishor, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Union Ministers Prahlad Patel and Ashwini Vaishnaw, former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavas and 40 journalists are among hundreds of Indian phone numbers that appeared on a list selected for surveillance by clients of NSO Group, an Israeli firm.
The Pegasus spyware secretly unlocks the contents of a target's mobile phone and transforms it into a listening device. NSO says it licenses the tool exclusively to government agencies to fight terrorism.
The government has strongly denied any surveillance on its part, calling the allegations "over-the-top" and "sensational".
IT and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw told the Lok Sabha that with several checks and balances in place, "any sort of illegal surveillance" by unauthorised persons was not possible in India.