A day after technology company Apple warned several Indian Opposition leaders that it believed their iPhones may have been targeted by state-sponsored attackers, Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra urged Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla to “seek accountability from the concerned authorities”.

Opposition leaders including the Congress’ Shashi Tharoor, TS Singhdeo, Revanth Reddy, Pawan Khera and Supriya Shrinate, Aam Aadmi Party’s Raghav Chadha and Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav had received messages from the firm saying that attackers were trying to compromise their devices. Besides politicians, at least four journalists had also received the message.

While the Opposition accused the Centre of using illegitimate means to target its leaders, Union minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said that Apple’s notification itself showed it has no clear information on the subject.

In a letter to Birla on Wednesday, Moitra said that “illegal surveillance” by the government through software available to state actors is the “worst attack” on fundamental rights.

“This threat is doubly shocking in light of the Pegasus software [sold only to governments] that was used to compromise the devices of various members of the Opposition, dissenting journalists and members of civil society during 2019-2021,” she wrote.

In July 2021, an investigation by a group of 17 media organisations and Amnesty International had shown that Pegasus spyware was being used for unauthorised surveillance of journalists, activists, and politicians across the world, including in India.

The spyware, licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group, was used to target Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa, Union ministers Ashwini Vaishnaw and Prahlad Singh Patel and former Central Bureau of Investigation Director Alok Verma.

Moitra, in her letter to Birla, said that there have been reports of targeted attacks on the democratic freedoms of members of the Opposition and voices of dissent in the past few years.

“These include misuse of central agencies and using majoritarian force to repeal, amend and create laws empowering the government to muzzle dissent,” she said. “Numerous cases of planting fabricated evidence on communication devices have come to light and innocent citizens have been framed to meet political ends.”

Moitra urged Birla to provide the Opposition MPs protection so that they could continue doing their duties, which is to question and hold the government accountable.

The Krishnanagar MP also cited a report by the Financial Times that said that the Indian government was looking for spyware that has a “lower profile” than Pegasus. The report published in March had reported that the Centre was willing to spend up to $120 million to obtain the spyware. The defence ministry had declined to comment on the report, the newspaper said.

What did Apple warning say?

In its alert to several Opposition MPs, Apple had warned that “if your device is compromised by a state-sponsored attacker, they may be able to remotely access your sensitive data, communications, or even the camera and microphone”. The notification added, “While it’s possible this is a false alarm, please take this warning seriously.”

On its website, Apple says: “Unlike traditional cybercriminals, state-sponsored attackers apply exceptional resources to target a very small number of specific individuals and their devices, which makes these attacks much harder to detect and prevent. State-sponsored attacks are highly complex, cost millions of dollars to develop and often have a short shelf life.”

However, in a subsequent clarification, the company said that it does not attribute the threat notifications to any specific state-sponsored attacker, The Hindu reported. An Apple spokesperson said the company is not specifically saying that the Indian government was responsible for these attacks, but added that it does not rule out the possibility.

“State-sponsored attackers are very well-funded and sophisticated, and their attacks evolve over time,” Apple said. “Detecting such attacks relies on threat intelligence signals that are often imperfect and incomplete. It’s possible that some Apple threat notifications may be false alarms, or that some attacks are not detected.”

The American technology company said that it is unable to provide information about what causes them to issue threat notifications since that may help state-sponsored attackers adapt their behaviour to evade detection in the future.

What did the Centre say?

Union Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said on Tuesday that the allegations of snooping by the Opposition were being made by the government’s “compulsive critics”. “Whenever these compulsive critics do not have any major issue, the only thing they say is surveillance,” he said.

In a series of tweets, the minister said that the information provided by Apple seems “vague and non-specific”.

“Apple states these notifications may be based on information which is ‘incomplete or imperfect’,” he said. “It also states that some Apple threat notifications may be false alarms or some attacks are not detected.”

However, Vaishnaw said that the government takes such allegations very seriously and will investigate the matter.