TNS Explainer: What is Pegasus project and how it triggered dismay in the country?

In the era of digitization, everyone is being watched by the invisible face through the invisible force and from an invisible direction. What if that invisible face had become a constant menace by entering your life circle? By concealing its identity, the face can enter into the privacy of some of the high-profile leaders in all spheres. Shockingly, it has happened in India and in a dreadful incident, that invisible face is the spyware operated by the government for the purpose of surveillance. 

What was inducted by the government agencies for surveillance has now become an imminent threat, with the level of risk higher than the invisible Covid-19 pandemic. In a stunning revelation, an investigation by an international media consortium has said that more than 50,000 phone numbers from across the world are believed to have become susceptible to hacking through the spyware called 'Pegasus' - developed by the Israeli cyber arms firm NSO Group. The spyware is only sold to government agencies.

What is Pegasus and how it works?

Pegasus is spyware developed by an Israeli based NSO Group and it can be installed covertly on mobile phones. NSO has claimed that spyware provides the technology to governments to help them in countering terror and crime. Once installed in a phone, the spyware is capable of reading text messages, tracking calls, collecting passwords, tracking location, accessing the target device's microphone and camera, and harvesting information from the mobile applications. 

In August 2020, an Israeli newspaper has said that the NSO Group had sold Pegasus spyware for hundreds of millions of US dollars to the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states for surveilling journalists, anti-regime activists, and political leaders from rival nations. Pegasus has come into existence in 2010 and the spyware infiltrates phones without the knowledge of the phone holder and covertly controls the microphones and cameras. 

The spyware is capable of escaping detection and after it enters the device, it can completely observe and control the device and can carry out the task of spying through listening to your ears, seeing your contacts, and breaching your privacy. If the government can possibly invoke the spyware in one's mobile, the recipient will be under the scanner all day. Moreover, Pegasus can easily access passwords, contact lists, calendar events, and live voice calls from popular mobile messaging applications. It has the capability of turning on the microphone and the camera and uses the GPS function on the phone to track a target's location and movements. 

What's the Pegasus project and why it has left the country worry? 

Pegasus project is a collaborative investigation carried out by the consortium of international media into a report of hacking by Pegasus across the world. The leaked database, which was believed to be targeted and hacked by the spyware, was accessed by Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and human rights organization Amnesty International and the database was shared with the media consortium including The Guardian, Washington Post, The Wire, Le Monde, and the leaked database has shockingly revealed that more than 50,000 phone numbers, across the world, are believed to have been the target of Pegasus. 

Over 300 verified phone numbers - including two Union Ministers, over 40 journalists, three opposition leaders, and one sitting judge, businessmen, government officials, scientists, rights activists, and others in India are believed to have been targeted for hacking through Pegasus, according to the media consortium. It has immensely shocked the country as the hacking plot was extraordinary with the target of Union Ministers and several high-profile figures. From the list of 50,000 mobile numbers, journalists were able to identify more than 1,000 individuals in fifty countries who were allegedly selected by NSO clients for potential surveillance. 

As the reports emerged with an unprecedented fashion of cybercrime, the development has worried India and triggered dismay in the country for an awful revelation of the flawed state of the software that was sold to the government agencies. Of these 1,000 individuals, 189 are journalists, 65 people are businessmen, 85 are human rights activists, more than 600 politicians, government officials, and several heads of state. The journalists belong to global news agencies including Reuters, CNN, The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, and The Financial Times. 

While the source of the leak wasn't disclosed, the consortium said that it believed that the data has clearly indicated potential targets of NSO's government clients. Some of the members of the consortium had confirmed that the traces of Pegasus spyware were found on the mobile phones of the journalists. The most numbers on the list - 15,000 were from the Mexico-based phones, with a large share in the Middle East. It has been reported that Saudi Arabia is one of the NSO's clients and the list has the phone numbers in India, France, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan. 

Amnesty International has also reported that its forensic experts had determined that the Pegasus spyware was successfully installed on the phone of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, just four days after Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. According to The Wire, the forensic tests conducted on a small cross-section of phones associated with these numbers revealed vivid signs that Pegasus had targeted 37 phones, of which 10 are Indian. The media agency has also said that the Indian phone numbers found in the database include 40 journalists, two sitting Union Ministers, three major opposition figures, several businessmen, and a sitting judge.

The Wire has stated that the Pegasus project has established the frightening extent to which governments including India are using surveillance tools in a manner that has nothing to do with national security. Some of the Indian journalists belong to The Hindu, Hindustan Times, Indian Express, The Wire, News18, and India Today. A former Delhi University professor's mobile phone was also targeted and the leaked database has also included at least nine numbers belonging to eight activists, lawyers, and academics arrested between June 2018 and October 2020 for their supposed role in the Elgar Parishad case. 

The report of the Pegasus project and the leaked database had stirred a storm in India with the opposition parties are accusing the Union government of spying on the leaders, activists, journalists, and its own ministers through the spyware. The reports had said that Union Ministers Ashwini Vaishnaw, Prahlad Patel, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, and political strategist Prashant Kishor could have been targeted and hacked by spyware. The project was made public on Sunday. On Monday, Rahul Gandhi took to Twitter and wrote, "We know what he's been reading - everything on your phone." The tweet was seemed to be a direct attack on Prime Minister Modi. The opposition parties including the Congress and Siva Sena had demanded a clarification from Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah over the spying report.

On the other hand, the government has strongly dismissed allegations of any kind of surveillance on its part on specific people and said that the report has no concrete basis or truth. By citing that India is a robust democracy that is committed to ensuring the right to privacy to all of its citizens as a fundamental right, the government has dismissed the report and called it an attempt to play the role of an investigator, prosecutor, as well as jury. The issue had also stormed the monsoon session of the Parliament on Monday. 

Responding to the Pegasus spying, Union Minister of Information and Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw, who was on the target list of the spyware, had rejected the report of the Pegasus project in the Lok Sabha. He said that the media reports were an attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions. He said, "In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp. Those reports had no factual basis and were denied by all parties. Press reports of July 18, 2021, also appear to be an attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions."