The phone numbers of the personal secretaries of former Karnataka Chief Ministers HD Kumaraswamy and Siddaramaiah were chosen as potential targets for surveillance in the run up to the collapse of the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government in the state in 2019, The Wire reported on Tuesday.

The phone number of G Parameshwara, who was then the deputy chief minister of Karnataka, was also among the potential targets, according to the news website.

The revelations were a part of a global investigation into how Pegagus, a software developed by Israeli firm NSO Group, was allegedly used for illegal cybersurveillance in several countries. The investigation raises serious questions since NSO claims it only sells the spyware to vetted governments.

Paris based non-profit Forbidden Stories had first accessed a leaked database of over 50,000 numbers which were of interest to NSO’s clients. The organisation shared the list with The Wire and 16 other media organisations as part of the Pegasus Project.

In 2019, 17 MLAs had revolted against the coalition government in Karnataka. A trust vote was held on July 23, which Kumaraswamy lost. After the fall of the Congress-JD(S) government, the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in the state.

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According to The Wire, two numbers belonging to Kumaraswamy’s personal secretary Satish were picked as potential targets in mid-2019, when the Congress-JD(S) government was trying to get the rebel MLAs back in its fold. Satish confirmed that he was using the phone number during that time.

The contact number of Venkatesh, Siddaramaiah’s personal secretary, was also chosen during the same period. “I don’t know whether my phone was a target for snooping,” Venkatesh told The Wire. “All I can say is that I don’t do anything illegal. If what you are claiming is true, it is wrong and I strongly condemn such an action.”

Parameshwara also confirmed to the news website that he was using the chosen phone number in 2019. The Congress leader said he had no idea why his phone might have been put under surveillance. He refused to have his phone analysed because of privacy concerns.

“I was not involved in any political management at the time [in 2019],” Parameshwara told The Wire. “I wasn’t even the Pradesh Congress Committee president at the time.”

Another phone number on the list of potential snooping targets was that of a security officer of JD(S) President and former Prime Minister HD Devegowda, The Wire reported.

However, the phones of these potential targets were not forensically analysed, so it cannot be established if they were infected with the spyware or whether there was an attempted hack.

Speaking to NDTV about the revelations, Kumaraswamy said: “When we were running the coalition government, BJP was misusing its office by tapping our phones to get information.”

He urged political leaders to focus on the problems that the people were facing. “Look after the life of the common man,” he said. “Save the lives the the people during Covid-19.”

Surveillance threat to national security: Congress

Congress leader and advocate Kapil Sibal on Tuesday said surveillance using the Pegasus software was a threat to national security and a violation of law, NDTV reported.

“If this data reaches other nations, if it is accessed by NSO technologists, then it becomes a threat to national security,” he added. “For now, only these lists have come. It is possible that in the coming days, it will be revealed that they have intercepted other people too.”

Sibal said that such surveillance violated citizens’ right to privacy as well as the Official Secrets Act and several cyber laws. It could even be considered stalking in several situations, he added.

The Pegasus project

On Sunday, The Wire revealed the names of dozens of journalists and activists on the list, including its own founder-editors Siddharth Vardarajan and MK Venu, The Hindu’s Vijaita Singh, the Hindustan Times’ Shishir Gupta, as well as scholars and activists on the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners and relatives, lawyers and friends of those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case and the accused themselves.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Union ministers Ashwini Vaishnaw, Prahlad Singh Patel, and virologist Gagandeep Kang were among the big names revealed on Monday as potential targets of surveillance using the Pegasus hacking software.

The list also contained numbers of an ex-Supreme Court staffer who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment.

The revelations triggered a huge political row in India, with the Opposition staging protests in the Parliament on the first day of the Monsoon Session. The Congress sought an inquiry into the matter.