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Mumbai: Several human rights defenders and academics implicated in the Elgar Parishad case and their lawyers have sent their representation to the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Committee alleging that their phones were infected by the vicious Pegasus malware.
In July last year, an international media consortium, including The Wire, had revealed that Pegasus spyware, sold by Israel’s NSO Group, was used to infect phones of several leading activists, journalists and politicians in the country. The investigative reports had prompted the Supreme Court to set up a committee to investigate the snooping allegations.
On January 2, the committee issued a public notice urging people to contact them in case they have reasons to believe that their phones were compromised using the malware.
Nihalsingh Rathod, a Nagpur-based lawyer who is representing many accused in the Elgar Parishad case, has sent a written representation to the committee. Along with him, another lawyer Jagdish Meshram and a member of the cultural group Kabir Kala Manch Rupali Jadhav have also written to the committee. All three of them were some of the first to be informed about the potential breach by the University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab as early as 2019.
Hany Babu Musaliyarveettil Tharayil, an associate professor from Delhi University (DU), and lawyer and academic Sudha Bharadwaj too have sent their representations. Both Hany Babu and Bharadwaj are named as accused in the Elgar Parishad case. Bharadwaj was released on bail last month after spending over three years in jail. Hany Babu is in jail and the representation was sent through his wife Jenny Rowena, also an associate professor at DU’s Miranda college.
Rathod, in his application, mentions that he began receiving video calls on WhatsApp in early 2019. These calls were from unknown international numbers. “On trying to answer the same, the call would stand disconnected. Irritated with the repeated instances, I preferred to block those numbers using provisions made in the WhatsApp application. However, there were repeated calls from different international numbers which prompted me to lodge a complaint officially with WhatsApp,” he writes in the application. He also filed an official complaint with WhatsApp informing them of the “suspicious activities,” he states.
Rathod was not alone. Minal Gadling, wife of Surendra Gadling – arrested in the Elgar Parishad case – and Meshram also continued to get such suspicious calls. Rights activist, writer and actor Vira Sathidar, who died in April last year, too complained of similar problems.
Rathod, in the letter, says his suspicion was finally confirmed when he received a call from John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher of the Citizen Lab, and was informed about the malware. Jadhav, Meshram, Gadling and Sathidar too were contacted by Citizen Lab.
Rathod says since then, he has been handling several sensitive cases, including that of scholar-activist G.N. Saibaba, who is serving a life term in the Nagpur Central Prison for alleged links with Maoists, and could have become an easy target. “I believe that my phone was intercepted for accessing the privileged communication and legal strategies drawn on behalf of my clients,” he writes.
Rona Wilson, a Delhi-based prisoners’ rights activist and one of the first persons to be arrested in the Elgar Parishad case, made a representation before the committee through his lawyer R. Sathyanarayanan.
In the letter, Sathyanarayanan mentions the findings of Arsenal Consulting, a Massachusetts-based digital forensics firm, that recently concluded that Wilson’s phone, an Apple make, was not just selected for surveillance by a client of Israel’s NSO Group but was also successfully compromised on many occasions. This report was prepared in consultation with Amnesty International’s Security Lab.
Earlier, Arsenal Consulting had come out with another explosive that pointed to the use of the NetWire RAT (Remote Access Trojan) on Wilson’s computer for both surveillance and incriminating document delivery.
Rights activist Vernon Gonsalves, lawyer Arun Ferreira and academics Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen have also sent their individual representations through their respective lawyers.
In July last year, The Wire – in collaboration with 16 other media organisations – had revealed names of 174 people who were either persons of interest or forensically identified as having been targeted by clients of the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. Those on the list include heads of state, political figures, activists, students, lawyers and journalists, among others.
The France-based media non-profit organisation Forbidden Stories had accessed a leaked database of 50,000 numbers who may have been targeted for surveillance by clients of NSO Group. Since the Israeli company says that the advanced spyware is only sold to “vetted governments”, it is safe to assume that these individuals were targets or potential targets of government or military agencies.
The news organisations working on the Pegasus Project were independently able to identify the owners of over 1,500 numbers across at least 10 countries. A small cross-section of these phones was forensically examined to find traces of Pegasus.
Amnesty International, in collaboration with The Wire, was able to forensically examine the phones of 10 Indians, all of which showed signs of either an attempted hack or a successful compromise.