Israeli company NSO Group, which is at the centre of a huge row over the alleged use of its spyware Pegasus to snoop on political figures, activists and journalists in several countries, on Wednesday said it will thoroughly investigate “any credible proof of the misuse of its technologies” and shut down the system where necessary.
Paris based non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International 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 Indian news website The Wire and 16 other media organisations as part of the Pegasus Project.
World leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan are among the list of potential targets of the spyware, according to The Wire. In India, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Union ministers Prahlad Patel and Ashwini Vaishnaw were among the possible targets.
On Wednesday, NSO Group again reiterated that the numbers on the leaked database was not a list of targets or potential targets of Pegasus. “Any claim that a name in the list is necessarily related to a Pegasus target or Pegasus potential target is erroneous and false,” the company said in a statement.
The firm added that it did not operate Pegasus system. “Nor do we have access to the data of our customers, yet they are obligated to provide us with such information under investigations,” the company said.
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The firm criticised the journalism consortium and announced that it will no longer engage with the media.
“In light of the recent planned and well-orchestrated media campaign lead by Forbidden Stories and pushed by special interest groups, and due to the complete disregard of the facts, NSO is announcing it will no longer be responding to media inquiries on this matter and it will not play along with the vicious and slanderous campaign,” said the statement, titled “Enough is Enough”.
Earlier on Wednesday, Reuters, citing an unidentified official, reported that Israel has formed an inter-ministerial team to look into the alleged misuse of the Pegasus software.
NSO had dismissed the global investigation on Monday also. “After checking their [Forbidden Stories] claims, we firmly deny the false allegations made in their report,” it had said. “Their sources have supplied them with information which has no factual basis, as evident by the lack of supporting documentation for many of their claims. In fact, these allegations are so outrageous and far from reality, that NSO is considering a defamation lawsuit.”
The controversy in India
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.
Apart from Gandhi, Vaishnaw and Patel, election strategist Prashant Kishor and virologist Gagandeep Kang also were among the big names revealed on Monday as potential targets of surveillance using the Pegasus hacking software.
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 on Monday
In the Lok Sabha, Vaishnaw dismissed reports about the misuse of Pegasus, saying that with checks and balances in place, illegal surveillance was not possible in India.
The Congress demanded that Union Home Minister Amit Shah be sacked and called for an inquiry into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the alleged surveillance.
“The unpardonable sin is that the snooping and hacking of cell phones through Pegasus has given illegal access to the entire conversations, passwords, contact lists, text messages and live voice calls of India’s security apparatus, Union ministers, Opposition leaders, paramilitary chiefs, Supreme Court Judges and others,” the party said on Monday. “This is clearly treason and total abdication of national security by the Modi government, more so when the foreign company [NSO] could possibly have access to this data.”