Industrialist Anil Ambani and former Central Bureau of Investigation Director Alok Verma 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.
Besides Ambani, another official of the Reliance ADG Group was also added to the list when India’s Rafale fighter jet deal with France came under scrutiny in 2018. The Opposition has alleged that Ambani has benefited from the overpriced deal.
According to The Wire, the numbers of Rafale maker Dassault Aviation’s India representative Venkata Rao Posina, Boeing India chief Pratyush Kumar and former Saab India head Inderjit Sial also figure on the list at different periods of time in 2018 and 2019.
Meanwhile, Alok Verma’s phone numbers were reportedly added to the list of potential targets hours after he was removed from his post in 2018.
The Centre had sent Verma and CBI Special Director Rakesh Asthana on leave on October 23, 2018, and appointed M Nageswara Rao the interim director. The government’s action came amid a tussle between Verma and Asthana. The CBI had named Asthana in a First Information Report in a bribery case after he was accused of accepting a Rs 2-crore bribe to scuttle an investigation into businessman Moin Qureshi, who was allegedly involved in multiple corruption cases.
The numbers of Verma’s family members and Asthana were also put on the list of potential surveillance targets, according to The Wire. After Verma retired, the people linked to him stopped being of interest to the agency that put them on the list.
However, The Wire could not confirm if the devices linked to Verma were indeed infiltrated. A forensic analysis is required to establish that.
The Pegasus Project
A leaked database of over 50,000 numbers, potential targets of surveillance, was first accessed by Paris-based non-profit Forbidden Stories and rights advocacy group Amnesty International and shared with their media partners, including The Wire. This list forms the basis of a global investigation called 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, virologist Gagandeep Kang and Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
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. But Shah dismissed their accusations and raised questions about the timing of the report.