New Delhi: The Hindu has reported after parsing trade data that an Indian defence agency has been buying equipment “billed as a potential Pegasus alternative” from the Israeli spyware firm Cognyte.
This report comes days after a report by the Financial Times said that the Narendra Modi government is reported to be looking to spend up to $120 million (over Rs 986 crores) on new spyware sold by firms less exposed than Israel’s NSO Group which sells the military-grade spyware Pegasus.
The report had mentioned that one of the firms the defence ministry was considering was Cognyte Software Limited.
The defence ministry has not responded to The Hindu‘s request for comment.
Cognyte has featured on Facebook parent Meta’s report on the ‘Surveillance for Fire’ industry. It is alleged to have regularly targeted journalists, government critics, human rights activists, opposition leaders and dissidents, without their knowledge, sometimes by compromising their devices or accounts.
The Hindu‘s report notes that for over three years, Cognyte and its then-parent firm Verint Systems Inc., have been supplying computer gear to the Signal Intelligence Directorate (SID), which comes under the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA).
The SID has personnel from the Army, Navy and Air Force. According to an Outlook report, it has permission to intercept, monitor and decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource for the service areas in Jammu and Kashmir, the northeastern states, including Assam.
“No other imports of any kind have been logged in customs data by the SID in the last few years. One product from the firm was brought in as recently as January this year,” the Hindu report adds.
The report does not contain further details of the kind of equipment purchased.
In late 2022, a report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), said import documents had shown that the Intelligence Bureau (IB), India’s domestic intelligence agency, bought hardware from the Israeli NSO Group that matches the description of equipment used to deploy the Pegasus spyware.
In 2021, The Wire, along with an international consortium of news outlets led by French media non-profit Forbidden Stories, broke the story on how journalists’, opposition leaders’, government critics’ and activists’ phone numbers were on a list of presumed Pegasus targets accessed by Forbidden Stories. Forensic tests on various devices by Amnesty International’s Security Lab also revealed that some activists and journalists’ phones had the spyware active.
The NSO Group, which came under global and particularly US-led censure in the aftermath of the reports, maintains that it only sells its spyware to “vetted governments” but has declined to identify client countries. At the Supreme Court, the Modi government has cited ‘national security’ and said that it could not reveal whether it uses Pegasus.
Last year, the New York Times, which was not part of the Forbidden Stories consortium, reported from Jerusalem that India had indeed purchased Pegasus from Israel as part of a wider $2 billion defence deal in 2017.