A phone number once used by retired Supreme Court judge Arun Mishra was added to the list of potential targets of surveillance by the use of the Pegasus spyware in 2019, The Wire reported on Wednesday.
Mishra told the website that he has not used the number since 2013-’14. However, an unidentified source at telecom company Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited has said that the Rajasthan number was registered in Mishra’s name from September 18, 2010 to September 19, 2018.
Mishra retired from the Supreme Court in September last year after a controversial tenure. He is currently the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission.
The alleged misuse of the spyware came to light earlier this month when Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International accessed a database featuring more than 50,000 phone numbers “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens”.
Before Mishra’s name cropped up, it was found that as many as 11 phone numbers, related to an ex-Supreme Court employee who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment, were among possible targets.
The list of potential Indian targets also include over 40 journalists, two Union ministers, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa, former Central Bureau of Investigation Director Alok Verma, several activists and businessmen.
Two SC registrars, many lawyers also on the list
Numbers belonging to two registrars then working at the writ petition section of the Supreme Court – NK Gandhi and TI Rajput – were also added to the list in 2019, according to The Wire. Both Gandhi, who has now retired, and Rajput said that they were unaware why an official agency would view them or their department as a possible candidate for surveillance.
Several lawyers, including Vijay Agarwal, who is currently representing fugitive businessmen Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi, were among potential targets. His number was added to the list in early 2018, after he became Modi’s counsel, The Wire reported. Modi and Choksi are accused of duping the Punjab National Bank of more than Rs 13,000 crore.
Another Delhi-based lawyer, Aljo P Joseph, was added to the list in 2019. He represents Christian Michel, an alleged British middleman extradited to India in December 2018 in connection with the AgustaWestland helicopter deal case.
A phone number registered in the name of M Thangathurai, a lawyer working in the chambers of former Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, was added in 2019.
By then, it had already been two years since Rohatgi had demitted his office at the constitutional post. However, Thangathurai told The Wire that his telephone number is listed under his boss’ name in many places such as banks. The arrangement was made so that Rohatgi is not disturbed by “routine calls”, or messages carrying one-time passwords, when he is busy.
The Pegasus spyware is licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group. The company insists that it licences its software only to “vetted governments” with good human-rights records and that Pegasus is intended to target criminals.
Responding to the allegations of spying, Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who himself happens to be on the list of potential targets of the spyware, told Parliament on July 19 that illegal surveillance was not possible in India. However, the Centre has not yet categorically denied that it used the Pegasus spyware.