India bought Israeli Pegasus spyware as part of weapons deal: NYT

Pegasus and a missile system were the ‘centerpieces’ of a $2bn deal from 2017, the newspaper says.

A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group near the southern Israeli town of Sapir
The Israeli NSO Group's Pegasus software has been used by governments across the world to access smartphones, researchers say [File: Reuters]

The Indian government led by Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi acquired spyware from Israel as part of a weapon purchase deal in 2017, according to a New York Times report.

The Indian government denied it bought the Israeli-made spyware, which was allegedly used to infect phones of its opponents, rights activists and journalists in India.

The report published on Friday said Pegasus and a missile system were the “centerpieces” of a roughly $2bn deal of sophisticated weapons and intelligence tools back then.

Last year, an investigation by a global consortium of media outlets showed how the Israeli-made malicious spyware was used by governments around the world to spy on dissidents and journalists via their mobile phones.

More than 1,000 phone numbers in India were among nearly 50,000 selected worldwide as possibly of interest to clients of the Israel-based NSO Group, the maker of the Pegasus spyware.

The New York Times report said the warming of relations after Modi came to power in India led to the deal in question back in the day.

“The Modi visit [to Israel in 2017] was notably cordial, complete with a carefully staged moment of him and Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu walking together barefoot on a local beach,” the newspaper said.

“Their countries had agreed on the sale of a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear worth roughly $2bn – with Pegasus and a missile system as the centerpieces,” it said.

“Months later, Netanyahu made a rare state visit to India. And in June 2019, India voted in support of Israel at the UN’s Economic and Social Council to deny observer status to a Palestinian human rights organisation, a first for the nation.”

India’s Defence Ministry told Parliament last year that it “has not had any transaction with NSO Group Technologies”.

But India’s main opposition Congress party has accused the government of committing “treason”.

“Modi Govt bought Pegasus to spy on our primary democratic institutions, politicians and public. Govt functionaries, opposition leaders, armed forces, judiciary all were targeted by these phone tappings. This is treason,” Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted on Saturday.

Another senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge said on Twitter: “Why did Modi Govt act like the enemies of India and use a warfare weapon against Indian citizens?”

Al Jazeera tried to reach out to spokesmen from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but calls were not answered.

A senior minister said in a tweet NYT cannot be “trusted”.

Last October, India’s Supreme Court set up a three-member panel to investigate the alleged use of Israeli spyware for surveillance in India.

Global controversy

The NSO Group, which does not disclose its client list, has been mired in controversy in recent years following investigations by researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, along with several rights groups and media outlets, that found the technology has been used by governments across the world to access the smartphones of political opponents, activists and journalists.

The Israeli government has distanced itself from the issue after the United States blacklisted the technology firm late last year.

After a months-long investigation, the NYT also said the Federal Bureau of Investigation, too, had tested the spyware “for years with plans to use it for domestic surveillance until the agency finally decided last year not to deploy the tools”.

According to the newspaper’s report, many ministers, politicians, activists, businessmen and journalists were potentially targeted by the Pegasus software.

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch said one of its senior staff members was targeted five times last year with Pegasus.

The software was used against Lama Fakih, director of the New York-based group’s Beirut office who also oversees its crisis response in countries including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Israel, Myanmar, the occupied Palestinian territory, Syria and the US, HRW said.

Source: Al Jazeera