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New Delhi: Reports from some websites misquoting, mistranslating and misinterpreting a Hebrew statement issued by Amnesty International Israel on the Pegasus Project and its leaked database have been seized upon by the Modi government in an attempt to discredit the allegation that an official agency in India might have been snooping on journalists and opposition politicians.
In a sharply worded official statement issued on Thursday afternoon in response to what it said were false allegations on social media and inaccurate media stories in relation to the Pegasus Project,” Amnesty International said:
“Amnesty International categorically stands by the findings of the Pegasus Project, and that the data is irrefutably linked to potential targets of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. The false rumours being pushed on social media are intended to distract from the widespread unlawful targeting of journalists, activists and others that the Pegasus Project has revealed.”
Amnesty International has said it will issue an English translation of the Amnesty International Israel statement shortly.
The Wire also spoke to Gil Naveh, spokesperson of Amnesty International Israel, who confirmed that the organisation’s Hebrew statement had been wrongly reported by a section of the media in Israel and is being wrongly quoted in English.
Naveh said that Amnesty’s Hebrew statement had described the leaked data at the heart of the Pegasus Project in exactly the same way as the 17 media organisations which are part of the global investigation.
Amnesty International is a part of the project and its technical lab has conducted a forensic examination of 67 phones operated by persons on the database, 37 of which were found to have evidence of a successful or attempted Pegasus hack. Pegasus is military grade spyware sold by the Israeli company NSO Group to vetted governments around the world. The company does not disclose the identity of its customers but the presence of Pegasus infections on the smartphones of journalists, an opposition leader and others is evidence the spyware has been deployed in India by some official agency or agencies.
One of the false stories doing the rounds is that Amnesty says the list of numbers is “indicative” of NSO customers.
Naveh told The Wire this is a mistranslation, and that what he had said in his statement is that this is a list of numbers that the company’s customers’ have expressed interest in, which includes journalists and human rights activists, political rivals, lawyers and so on.
The Amnesty Israel statement had also reiterated what the 17 media partners on the Pegasus Project have been saying about the leaked database, which is that it has never presented this list as “the list of numbers infected with NSO’s Pegasus Spyware”. It said that while some media outlets around the world may have done so,
“Amnesty, and the journalists involved in the investigation, made it clear from the outset in very clear language that this was a list of numbers marked or targeted as numbers of interest for NSO’s customers, who are various regimes in the world.” (emphasis added)
What The Wire and its media partners have been saying from Day 1
In all their reporting, the 17 media organisations involved with the Pegasus Project have stuck to a responsible and cautious description of the database, even if other media organisations that are following the story may have used looser language.
The Pegasus Project consortium has never implied and does not believe that all phone numbers present on the leaked list of 50,000 witnessed infiltration attempts or were successfully snooped upon by governments using the Pegasus spyware.
What the media partners on the project believe it to be is a list of persons of interest selected by clients of NSO Group, or, in other words, possible candidates for surveillance.
There are multiple takeaways from our investigation of the database of phone numbers.
First, among those that were verified and identified by media partners, a majority of them fall in countries in which experts have in the past identified Pegasus infections and the active functioning of a Pegasus operator.
Second, and more importantly, the forensic analysis of 37 phones from the list shows in most cases a strong correlation between the time a phone number appears in the leaked records and the beginning of surveillance. The gap usually ranges between a few minutes, or a couple of hours. In some cases, including forensic tests conducted for two India numbers, the time between a number appearing on the list and the successful detection of a trace of Pegasus infection is just seconds.
Third, some of the persons notified by WhatsApp in 2019 about a Pegasus attack on their phones also appear in the leaked database, with date and time stamps which match the period that WhatsApp identified.
While not all phones whose numbers were verified could undergo forensic analysis – for a number of reasons, which are laid out in our FAQ – the above-mentioned correlation suggests that for a small cross-section of numbers, their presence on the list was linked to specific targeting and snooping by a client of the NSO Group.
The Pegasus Project is a collaborative investigation that involves more than 80 journalists from 17 news organisations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Read all our coverage here.