Non-governmental organisation Amnesty International on Thursday said that it categorically stood by the findings of the Pegasus Project, a global investigation about the alleged misuse of a spyware developed by Israeli firm NSO group.

The organisation issued the statement in response to “false allegations on social media and inaccurate media stories in relation to the Pegasus Project”.

“Amnesty International categorically stands by the findings of the Pegasus Project, and that the data is irrefutably linked to potential targets of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware,” it said. “The false rumours being pushed on social media are intended to distract from the widespread unlawful targeting of journalists, activists and others that the Pegasus Project has revealed.”

Amnesty International and 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 Indian news website The Wire and 16 other media organisations as part of the Pegasus Project. The investigation raises serious questions since NSO claims it only sells the spyware to governments.

The participants in this investigation have repeatedly clarified that not all the numbers were successfully snooped on but were potential targets of surveillance. Only a forensic analysis can determine if a device was infiltrated or subjected to a hack.

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However, certain media outlets misquoted a Hebrew statement issued by Amnesty International, after which the company clarified that it never said its list was that of “numbers infected with NSO’s Pegasus Spyware”, The Wire reported.

“Amnesty, and the journalists involved in the investigation, made it clear from the outset in very clear language that this was a list of numbers marked or targeted as numbers of interest for NSO’s customers, who are various regimes in the world,” the organisation said.

“The list contains the kind of people NSO’s clients would ordinarily be interested in spying on, but the list isn’t specifically a list of people who were spied on – though a very small subset of people on the list were indeed spied on,” the company added, according to NDTV.

A central government official in India used the misquoted statement to discredit the Pegasus Project. “Laughable ‘snooping’ story was spun around an ‘indicative’ list manufactured by Amnesty International,” Kanchan Gupta, senior adviser at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, claimed in a tweet.

“So Amnesty conjured a ‘list’ of ‘possible targets’ and fed it to media collaborators who feverishly put out eyeball-grabbing lurid stories,” Gupta added. “In our time we used to call it ‘Planter’s Raj’ – media planting stories that came in brownpaper envelopes. Now they come via email.”

The Pegasus Project revelations

On Sunday, The Wire revealed the names of dozens of Indian 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.

World leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan have also figured in among the list of possible targets of the surveillance. In India, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Union ministers Prahlad Patel and Ashwini Vaishnaw were among the possible targets.

Election strategist Prashant Kishor and virologist Gagandeep Kang were also among the big names revealed on Monday as potential targets of surveillance using the Pegasus hacking software.

The list also contained numbers of a former Supreme Court employee who had accused the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in 2019.

The revelations triggered a huge political row in India, with the Opposition staging protests in Parliament. 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 had 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.”