The closest advisors of Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, were among those picked as potential targets of surveillance by a client of NSO Group, the Israeli developer of the Pegasus spyware, The Wire reported on Thursday.
A leaked database of over 50,000 numbers, first accessed by Paris-based non-profit Forbidden Stories and rights advocacy group Amnesty International and shared with their media partners, including The Wire, showed that the contacts of Tibetan officials and activists were marked for possible surveillance from late 2017 to early 2019.
However, it cannot be said for sure if their devices were infected with the spyware, since only a forensic analysis can determine that.
According to The Wire, initial records of possible surveillance were linked to the staff members of Urgyen Trinley Dorji, who is the third highest-ranking monk in Tibetan Buddhism. He has been living outside India since 2000.
Also on the list of possible targets of surveillance was Samdhong Rinpoche, the head of the trust that will choose the next Dalai Lama. According to The Wire, his name was added to the list in mid-2018.
Tempa Tsering, the Dalai Lama’s envoy in Delhi, also appeared on the list. This happened around the time when the Dalai Lama met former United States President Barack Obama in Delhi in 2017.
Other names on the database were Tenzin Taklha and Chimmey Rigzen, senior aides of the Dalai Lama. Several Tibetan activists in India were also included in the list.
The Pegasus Project
The global investigation has revealed the names of heads of state, politicians, students, activists, journalists and lawyers in several countries as possible targets of surveillance. The Pegasus Project has raised serious questions about the misuse of spyware sold only to governments.
In India, prominent names on the list of potential targets included Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Union ministers Prahlad Patel and Ashwini Vaishnaw, election strategist Prashant Kishor and virologist Gagandeep Kang.
The database also included the names of dozens of journalists and activists including The Wire’s founder-editors Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu, The Hindu’s Vijaita Singh, the Hindustan Times’ Shishir Gupta as well as the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case and their lawyers and friends.
The revelations have triggered a huge political row in India, with the Opposition heavily criticising the Centre during the Monsoon Session of Parliament.
On Monday, 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.”
But Shah dismissed their accusations and raised questions about the timing of the report. “Today the Monsoon Session of Parliament has started,” he had said on Monday. “In what seemed like a perfect cue, late last evening we saw a report which has been amplified by a few sections with only one aim – to do whatever is possible and humiliate India at the world stage, peddle the same old narratives about our nation and derail India’s development trajectory.”