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Indian journalists again targeted by Israeli spyware: what do we know? | Press freedom news

A new forensic investigation by Amnesty International and the Washington Post has shown the use of Israeli Pegasus spyware, likely by the Indian government, to monitor high-profile Indian journalists. A report detailing the findings was released Thursday. Here’s what we know.

What does the report say?

The report, published by Amnesty’s Security Lab, reveals that the software continues to be used to target high-profile Indian journalists, including a journalist who had also been the victim of attacks by the same spyware.

The Wire’s founding editor Siddharth Varadarajan and Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) South Asia Editor Anand Mangnale were among those recently targeted using the spyware Pegasus on their iPhones. The latest attack was identified in October this year.

On October 31, Apple, the maker of iPhones, sent notifications to users around the world who may have been targeted by “state-sponsored” attacks. Among the informed users, more than 20 were opposition leaders and journalists in India.

Among them was inflammatory opposition lawmaker Mahua Moitra. Known for her sharp questions in Parliament, Moitra was recently expelled following allegations of misconduct after she repeatedly raised questions about the government’s alleged benefits to the Adani Group, a company widely seen as close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Amnesty was able to find an email address controlled by an attacker and used to target Mangnale, who was working on a story about alleged stock manipulation by a large multinational conglomerate in India at the time of the attack. It is not yet known whether the target managed to break into Mangnale’s phone and compromise it.

The Washington Post report on the investigation said Mangnale’s phone was attacked within 24 hours of contacting tycoon Gautam Adani.

The same email address was used to target Varadarajan on October 16. There is also no indication whether this attack has been successful so far.

The attacks come just months before India’s national elections, in which a broad coalition of opposition parties take on Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).


When has Pegasus ever been used to attack Indian journalists?

Amnesty had previously discovered that Varadarajan’s phone had been targeted and infected by Pegasus in 2018. His devices were analyzed by a committee established by the Indian Supreme Court in 2021. The investigation was completed in 2022 and its findings did not have not been made public.

“The court noted, however, that Indian authorities “failed to cooperate; with the investigations of the technical committee,” says the Amnesty report.

In 2021, leaked documents showed the spyware had been used against more than 1,000 Indian phone numbers, with New Delhi accused of using Pegasus to monitor journalists, opposition politicians and activists. This list was shared with the media by Amnesty and Forbidden Stories, a non-profit journalism organization based in Paris.


What is Pegasus and how exactly does it work?

Pegasus is spyware developed by the Israeli cyber weapons and intelligence company – Niv, Shalev and Omri (NSO) Group Technologies. It was launched in August 2016. NSO claims that the spyware is only used by governments and official law enforcement to facilitate rescue operations and combat criminal or terrorist activities.

If a phone is attacked by Pegasus, the phone can turn into a surveillance device, allowing Pegasus to access text messages, phone calls, photos and videos. It can also access the phone’s camera, location, and microphone, recording audio or video without the phone owner’s knowledge.

Early versions of the spyware targeted users through phishing attacks. This means that a malicious link was sent to targets via emails or SMS messages. If targets clicked on the link, the spyware would be installed on their phones.

However, technology has since advanced and Pegasus can now be installed without the target having to click on a malicious link. Instead, it can infect a device via so-called “zero-click” attacks. This is done by exploiting vulnerabilities in phone operating systems that even developers are unaware of.

Encrypted apps such as WhatsApp are not only compromised but are now being used to infect devices with spyware. In 2019, WhatsApp confirmed that its platform was used to send malware to more than 1,400 phones, including several Indian journalists and human rights activists.

Users would receive a WhatsApp call and the software would be installed on their phone even if they did not answer the call. On iPhones, iMessage software was also used.

Due to rapid advancements in technology, it has become more difficult to detect the presence of Pegasus through telltale signs. Although ordinary phones are unlikely to be at risk, phones belonging to activists and high-profile journalists are at risk of being monitored by spyware.

Is India Suppressing Free Speech?

Many journalists’ organizations and rights groups have warned that press freedom has declined under the Modi government, with several journalists arrested.

India fell to 161st in the World Press Freedom Index, down from 150th last year, its lowest level on record. The Modi government rejects this index and questions its methodology, arguing about press freedom in India.

In early October, Indian police carried out searches against dozens of journalists and arrested Prabir Purkayastha, editor-in-chief of the independent and critical website NewsClick. Many other NewsClick journalists have had their devices and homes searched.

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