The Pegasus Project: How Activists are Being Targeted
If you have studied your mythology, you may remember the story of Perseus, the son of Poseidon who, after slaying Medusa and the Gorgons, escaped on the fabled Pegasus (a winged, flying horse). On his return flight to Seriphos, he spotted Andromeda chained to a rock for tribute to the sea serpent Cetus. Perseus flew down on Pegasus to save her and slay the beast. This fantastical story about the mighty Perseus would not have ended as well had it not been for his flying companion. Unfortunately, the Pegasus in the news is far different.
While the Pegasus Project does enable the user to see what is happening from above, its uses are far more nefarious.
What is the Pegasus Project?
Pegasus is a spyware (spying software) tool with remote access capabilities made y the Israeli firm NSO Group. It is able to extract phone information, harvest conversations taking place over apps like WhatsApp and Facebook, monitor email clients and browser activity, record calls, and spy on victims through their microphone and camera. While many people are led to believe that an iPhone is impervious to these attacks, this spyware proves them wrong.
In the cybersecurity world, Pegasus is considered a zero-click, zero-day vulnerability, which means it requires no user interaction to enable it and there is yet to be a patch for it. It is spread through SMS and iMessage via a link, making it exceptionally easy to spread.
NSO Group categorically denied its spyware was misused and states it only sells the software to governments for counter-terrorism activities. It went on to challenge the validity of the reports of its misuse, however, the evidence seems damming.
Who is Accused of Misusing Pegasus?
There is yet to be a definitive list of those who bought and abused the Pegasus Project. However, data analytics show significant clustering of targets, which leads analysts to believe the potential clients include the following:
- United Arab Emirates
- Saudi Arabia
While this software is intended to be used to counter criminal activity, that was not always the case. Of the over 1,000 individuals targeted, at least 188 were journalists. Other targets include human rights activists, diplomats, politicians, government officials, and at least 10 heads of state.
Is This Legal?
The legality of using Pegasus in this way is not a straightforward issue. There are numerous jurisdictions involved, each with a unique set of laws and regulations. In short, countries do have the right to investigate criminal activity and monitor those considered to be dangerous. However, many of these countries are believed to have little respect for the rule of law and human rights, enabling corruption and abuses of power possible even while following the law. However, the list of targets suggest that Pegasus was used for political or illegal purposes.
Despite these challenges, there is some recourse. Because NSO Group exploited vulnerabilities in Apple’s, Googles, and Facebook’s software (among others), these companies can file damage claims against NSO Group. WhatsApp (a subsidiary of Facebook) recently launched a lawsuit against the Israeli company.
Who Was Targeted?
1. M.K. Venu: A founding editor of The Wire. His phone was also forensically analysed and traces of Pegasus were found.
2. Sushant Singh: Former Indian Express journalist who writes on national security. After a forensic analysis of his phone, Amnesty arrived at the conclusion that it had been compromised.
3. Siddharth Varadarajan: A founding editor of The Wire, his phone was forensically analysed. The analysis showed that the phone was compromised by Pegasus.
4. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta: Former EPW editor, who no writes for Newsclick. His phone was compromised by Pegasus, forensic analysis revealed.
5. S.N.M. Abdi: Former Outlook journalist, whose phone was compromised according to forensic analysis.
6. Vijaita Singh: The Hindu journalist who covers the home ministry. Forensic analysis of her phone showed evidence of an attempted hack, but no evidence of a successful compromise.
7. Smita Sharma: Former TV18 anchor. Forensic analysis found evidence of an attempted hack but nothing to indicate that her phone was successfully infected.
8. Shishir Gupta: Executive editor at Hindustan Times
9. Rohini Singh: Freelance journalist who has written several exposes for The Wire about controversial business dealings of politicians or their family members.
10. Devirupa Mitra: The Wire‘s diplomatic editor.
11. Prashant Jha: Views editor of Hindustan Times, formerly the bureau chief.
12. Prem Shankar Jha: A veteran journalist who held editorial positions at Hindustan Times, the Times of India and several other newspapers. He is a regular contributor to The Wire.
13. Swati Chaturvedi: Freelance journalist who has contributed to The Wire. She wrote a book about the infamous BJP IT Cell.
14. Rahul Singh: Defence correspondent for Hindustan Times.
15. Aurangzeb Naqshbandi: A political reporter who formerly worked for Hindustan Times and covered the Congress party.
16. Ritika Chopra: A journalist for the Indian Express who covers the education and Election Commission beats.
17. Muzamil Jaleel: Another Indian Express journalist who covers Kashmir.
18. Sandeep Unnithan: India Today journalist who reports on defence and the Indian military.
19. Manoj Gupta: Editor of investigations and security affairs at TV18.
20. J. Gopikrishnan: An investigative reporter with The Pioneer, he broke the 2G telecom scam.
21. Saikat Datta: Formerly a national security reporter.
22. Ifthikar Gilani: Former DNA reporter who reports on Kashmir.
23. Manoranjan Gupta: Northeast-based editor in chief of Frontier TV.
24. Sanjay Shyam: A Bihar-based journalist.
25. Jaspal Singh Heran: An octogenarian who is the editor-in-chief of the Ludhiana-based Punjabi daily Rozana Pehredar.
26. Roopesh Kumar Singh: A freelance based in Jharkhand’s Ramgarh.
27. Deepak Gidwani: former correspondent of DNA, Lucknow
Politicians, Political Figures and Their Staff:
1. Rahul Gandhi: The Congress party leader who was presumed prime ministerial candidate for the past two general elections.
2. Alankar Sawai: A close aide of Rahul Gandhi.
3. Sachin Rao: Another aide of Rahul Gandhi who is a member of the Congress Working Committee.
4. Prashant Kishor: An election strategist who has worked for several political parties, including the BJP and the Congress. His phone was forensically analysed and showed signs of a successful hack.
5. Abhishek Banerjee: A Trinamool Congress MP who is the nephew of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
6. Ashwini Vaishnaw: A former IAS officer who was made a Union cabinet minister in the recent expansion.
7. Prahlad Singh Patel: Another cabinet minister in the Union government, his wife, secretaries, assistants, cook and gardener, etc.
8. Pravin Togadia: Former head of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
9. Pradeep Awasthi: Personal secretary to former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia.
10. Sanjay Kachroo: A corporate executive who was chosen by then human resource development minister Smriti Irani as her officer on special duty in 2014, but was never formally appointed. Listed along with his father and minor son.
11. G. Parameshwara: Deputy chief minister in the JD(S)-Congress coalition government in Karnataka, which was toppled after several MLAs defected to the BJP.
12: Satish: Personal secretary to H.D. Kumaraswamy, who was chief minister of Karnataka.
13. Venkatesh: Personal secretary to Siddaramaiah, who was the Congress chief minister of Karnataka before Kumaraswamy.
14. Manjunath Muddegowda: Security personnel of former prime minister and JD(S) president H.D. Devegowda.
1. Ashok Lavasa: A career bureaucrat, he was a potential target of surveillance when he was an election commissioner.
Activists, lawyers and academicians:
1. Hany Babu M.T.: Professor at Delhi University who is an accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
2. Rona Wilson: A prisoners’ rights activist who is another accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
3. Vernon Gonsalves: A rights activist. He is also accused in the ELgar Parishad case.
4. Anand Teltumbde: An academic and civil liberties activist who is accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
5. Shoma Sen: Retired professor and one of the accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
6. Gautam Navlakha: A journalist and rights activist who is accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
7. Arun Ferreira: A lawyer who is also accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
8. Sudha Bhardwaj: Activist and lawyer and accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
9. Pavana: The daughter of Telugu poet Varavara Rao, who is accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
10. Minal Gadling: The wife of lawyer Surendra Gadling, who is accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
11. Nihalsing Rathod: A lawyer and associate of Surendra Gadling.
12. Jagadish Meshram: Another lawyer who is associated with Surendra Gadling.
13. Maruti Kurwatkar: An accused in several cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. He was represented by Surendra Gadling.
14. Shalini Gera: A lawyer who has represented Sudha Bharadwaj.
15. Ankit Grewal: A close legal associate of Sudha Bharadwaj.
16. Jaison Cooper: Kerala-based rights activist who is a friend of Anand Teltumbde.
17. Rupali Jadhav: A member of cultural troupe Kabir Kala Manch.
18. Lalsu Nagoti: A lawyer who is a close associate of Mahesh Raut, who is accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
19. Soni Sori: Tribal rights activist who is based in Bastar.
20. Lingaram Kodopi: A journalist and the nephew of Soni Sori.
21. Degree Prasad Chouhan: An anti-caste activist who is the Chhattisgarh state president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
22. Rakesh Ranjan: An assistant professor at the Sri Ram College of Commerce.
23. Ashok Bharti: Chairman of the All India Ambedkar Mahasabha, an umbrella association of Dalit rights’ groups.
24. Umar Khalid: Former student of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). He was first arrested on sedition charges during the infamous JNU sloganeering case. He is now in jail, awaiting trial as an accused in the Delhi riots conspiracy case.
25. Anirban Bhattacharya: Another former JNU student who was arrested along with Khalid on sedition charges.
26. Banjyotsna Lahiri: Also a JNU student.
27. Bela Bhatia: A lawyer and human rights activist based in Chhattisgarh.
28. Shiv Gopal Mishra: A railway union leader.
29. Anjani Kumar: Delhi-based labour rights activist.
30. Alok Shukla: An anti-coal mining activist and convenor of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan.
31. Saroj Giri: A Delhi University professor.
32. Shubhranshu Choudhary: A Bastar-based peace activist.
33. Sandeep Kumar Rai: Former BBC journalist and trade union activist.
34. Khalid Khan: A colleague of Sandeep Kumar Rai.
35. Ipsa Shatakshi: A Jharkhand-based activist.
37. S.A.R. Geelani: Delhi University professor who was convicted and later acquitted in the parliament bombing case. His phone was forensically analysed and showed signs of an infection by Pegasus.
38. G. Haragopal: A retired professor who taught at the University of Hyderabad. He was chairman of Saibaba Defence Committee. Three of his phones were forensically analysed and the results were inconclusive.
39. Vasantha Kumari: The wife of former Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba, who was convicted for links with a banned Maoist organisation.
40. Rakesh Ranjan: An assistant professor at Delhi University. He was a supporter of the Saibaba Defence Committee.
41. Jagdeep Chhokar: Co-founder of the watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms.
1. A former Supreme Court staffer: The woman had accused then chief justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment. Several members of her family were also potential targets for surveillance.
Figures from the Northeast (India)
1. Samujjal Bhattacharjee: An advisor to the All Assam Students Union and member of the high level committee to look into the implementation of Clause Six of the Assam Accord.
2. Anup Chetia: A leader of the United Liberation Front of Assam.
3. Malem Ningthouja: A Delhi-based writer who is from Manipur.
Naga Leaders (India)
1. Atem Vashum: A leader of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-Isak Muivah) who is assumed to be the successor to the group’s chairman Th. Muivah.
2. Apam Muivah: Another NSCN (I-M) leader who is Th. Muivah’s newphew.
3. Anthony Shimray: The commander in chief of the Naga Army of NSCN (I-M).
4. Phunthing Shimrang: The former commander in chief of the NSCN (I-M)’s Naga Army.
5. Kitovi Zhimomi: Convenor of the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs). The Narendra Modi government was in parleys with the groups to find ‘one solution’ to the Naga issue.
Scientists or Those Involved in the Health Sector
1. Gagandeep Kang: One of India’s foremost virologists who was involved in the fight against the Nipah virus.
2. Hari Menon: The Indian head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
1. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador: He is now the president of Mexico, but was targeted before his election in 2018. Several of his aides were also targeted.
3. Imran Khan: The prime minister of Pakistan.
4. Mostafa Madbouly: The prime minister of Egypt.
5. Saad-Eddine El Othmani: The prime minister of Morocco.
6. Barham Salih: The president of Iraq.
7. Cyril Ramaphosa: The president of South Africa.
8. Mohammed VI: Morocco’s king.
9. Saad Hariri: Former prime minister of Lebanon.
10: Ruhakana Rugunda: Former prime minister of Uganda.
11. Noureddine Bedoui: Former prime minister of Algeria.
12. Charles Michel: Former prime minister of Belgium who is currently the president of the European Council.
13. Panah Huseynov: Former prime minister of Azerbaijan.
14. Felipe Calderon: Former Mexican president.
People Linked to Jamal Khashoggi
1. Hatice Cengiz: A Turkish doctorate student who was engaged to Jamal Khashoggi. Her phone was analysed forensically.
2. Hanan Elatr: She was married to Khashoggi. Her phone was also forensically analysed.
3. Wadah Khanfar: The former director general of Al Jazeera television network. His phone was forensically analysed.
4. Turan Kislakci: A Turkish journalist who introduced Khashoggi to Cengiz.
5. Irfan Fidan: The Turkish chief prosecutor in charge of investigations into Khashoggi’s murder.
Individuals Linked to Dubai Ruler
1. Sheikha Latifa: A member of the Dubai royal family and the daughter of UAE’s prime minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. When she attempted to flee her father’s custody, she was captured by Indian forces near Goa and sent back to Dubai.
2. Haya bint Hussein: Estranged wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.