The smartphone of an Indian journalist, who works for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and reported on the alleged stock manipulation by the Adani Group, was allegedly targeted using Pegasus spyware in August, the organisation’s co-founder Drew Sullivan told Reuters on Tuesday.

According to Sullivan, hackers tried to plant the spyware made by Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO into journalist Anand Mangnale’s iPhone.

An internal forensic investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project linked the cyber attack against Mangnale’s phone to NSO’s Pegasus hacking tool.

Pegasus allows hackers to record calls, intercept messages and transform the phones into portable listening devices. The spyware is licensed to governments around the world.

“Whatever government is spying on the reporters, there’s no plausible explanation for that other than political gain,” Sullivan told Reuters.

He termed the attempt as “unacceptable and outrageous”.

In August, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project published a report by journalists Ravi Nair and Mangnale on alleged stock manipulation by the Adani Group. The report alleged that two investors who pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the Adani Group through offshore funds have close ties to the conglomerate’s promoters. The report raised questions about the possible violation of Indian stock market rules.

Anti-phone hacking firm iVerify, which carried out forensic work for the OCCRP on Magnale’s device, said that it found a pattern of suspicious crashes on the electronic device that matched with Pegasus intrusions, Reuters reported.

This comes after United States technology company Apple last week issued security alerts to Magnale and Nair, besides several Opposition leaders and journalists, that their phones may have been targeted by state-sponsored attackers. Apple did not attribute the warning to “any specific state-sponsored attacker”.

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

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa, Union ministers Ashwini Vaishnaw and Prahlad Singh Patel, industrialist Anil Ambani and former Central Bureau of Investigation Director Alok Verma were among the potential targets, The Wire had reported.

The Indian government had denied these allegations. Vaishnaw, the Union information technology minister, told Parliament in July 2021 that illegal surveillance was not possible in India.

NSO Group insisted that it sells the software only to “vetted governments” with good human-rights records and that Pegasus is intended to target criminals.

Following the reports, the Supreme Court appointed an expert committee to look into the allegations. In August 2022, the court said that some malware was found on five of the 29 phones that the panel examined. However, it was not clear whether the malware was Pegasus.

The judges also took note of a finding by the panel that the Centre did not cooperate with the inquiry.

In March, the Financial Times reported quoting unidentified persons that the Indian government was looking for spyware that has a “lower profile” than Pegasus. It 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.

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