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India’s Gandhi and Pakistan’s Khan Tapped as Targets in Israeli NSO Spyware Scandal

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel in 2017. Over 1,000 Indian numbers were potentially targeted by NSO's Pegasus software
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel in 2017. Over 1,000 Indian numbers were potentially targeted by NSO's Pegasus softwareCredit: קובי גדעון / לעמ
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob

Prominent Indian politician Rahul Gandhi and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan were selected as potential targets of the Israeli-made Pegasus spyware program by clients of the NSO Group cyberespionage firm, a global investigation can reveal Monday.

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Forbidden Stories – a Paris-based journalism nonprofit – and Amnesty International had access to a leak of more than 50,000 records of phone numbers that NSO clients selected for possible surveillance. The leak was shared with Haaretz and 16 other news organizations worldwide that have worked collaboratively to conduct further analysis and reporting over past months.

Forbidden Stories oversaw the investigation, called the Pegasus Project, and Amnesty International provided forensic analyses and technical support.

Project Pegasus partners The Guardian and the Washington Post, as well as the Indian newspaper The Wire, revealed Monday that Rahul Gandhi, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s biggest political rival, was selected to be a target at least twice. 

Rahul Gandhi in Karnataka in 2018. Two numbers linked to Gandhi were selected for targeting by an NSO client and are being revealed as part of the Pegasus ProjectCredit: Sidheeq via WikiCommons

The database only includes potential targets – a wish list of sorts from NSO’s clients – and not verified targets. But traces of NSO software were found in more than 85 percent of the analyses conducted by Amnesty International on iPhones that were used by potential victims across the world at the time of their number's selection. 

According to the Pegasus Project investigation, out of the 50,000 phone numbers leaked, over 1,000 Indian numbers were selected as potential targets. According to The Guardian, the numbers “strongly indicate that intelligence agencies within the Indian government were operating the system.”

Read more >> The Israeli cyber weapon used against 180 journalists ■ Khashoggi’s fiancee, son targeted by NSO tech, investigation reveals ■ How NSO's Pegasus is used to spy on journalists ■ Analysis: How Israeli spy-tech became dictators' weapon of choice  ■ Israel's NSO and Pegasus Are a Danger to Democracy Around the World

India has not confirmed nor denied whether it is a client of NSO, and its regulation does not require the government to disclose the use of such technology. 

Among those potentially targeted in India were two of Gandhi's closest advisors - Alankar Sawai and Sachin Rao – and Ashok Lavasa, a senior Indian election official. The local head of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, M. Hari Menon, was also tapped as a potential target.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during an interview with Reuters in Islamabad, Pakistan June 4, 2021. Credit: SAIYNA BASHIR/ REUTERS

Additional potential targets included Pakistani officials, including a number once associated with Pakistani leader Khan. They also included Kashmiri separatists, leading Tibetan religious figures and even an Indian supreme court judge. Khan did not respond to a request for comment from the Washington Post. 

Gandhi, who said he changes phones every few months to avoid being hacked, said in response: “Targeted surveillance of the type you describe, whether in regard to me, other leaders of the opposition or indeed any law-abiding citizen of India, is illegal and deplorable.

“If your information is correct, the scale and nature of surveillance you describe goes beyond an attack on the privacy of individuals. It is an attack on the democratic foundations of our country. It must be thoroughly investigated, and those responsible be identified and punished.”

According to an analysis of the Pegasus Project records, more than 180 journalists were selected in 21 countries by at least 12 NSO clients. The potential targets and clients hail from Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, India, Mexico, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Togo and Rwanda. 

The Amnesty International Security Lab conducted forensics analyses of cell phones targeted with Pegasus as part of the project. Their findings are consistent with past analyses of those targeted with NSO’s spyware, including the case of dozens of journalists allegedly hacked in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, identified by Citizen Lab in December of last year.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel in 2017. Over 1,000 Indian numbers were potentially targeted by NSO's Pegasus softwareCredit: Koby Gideon, GPO

India is Israel’s biggest arms market, buying around $1 billion worth of weapons every year, according to Reuters. The two countries have grown closer since Modi became Indian prime minister in 2014, widening commercial cooperation beyond their longstanding defense ties. Modi became the first sitting Indian leader to visit Israel in July 2017, while former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a state visit to India at the start of 2018.

NSO issued a response to the 17 media partners led by the journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, calling the leak an "international conspiracy." 

"The report by Forbidden Stories is full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability and interests of the sources. It seems like the 'unidentified sources' have supplied information that has no factual basis and are far from reality," the company said in the statement.

"After checking their claims, we firmly deny the false allegations made in their report," NSO’s statement said.

In response to questions from the Washington Post, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said the claim that specific people were targeted “had no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever.” They added that “any interception, monitoring or decryption of any information through any computer resource is done as per due process of law.”

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