The Indian government led by Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi acquired spyware from Israel as part of an arms purchase deal in 2017, according to a report by The New York Times.
The Indian government has denied buying the Israeli-made spyware, which was allegedly used to infect the phones of its opponents, rights activists and journalists in India.
The report released on Friday said Pegasus and a missile system were the “centerpieces” of an estimated $2 billion contract for sophisticated weapons and intelligence tools at the time.
Last year, an investigation by a global media consortium showed how Israeli-made malicious spyware was being used by governments around the world to spy on dissidents and journalists through their cellphones.
More than 1,000 phone numbers in India were among nearly 50,000 selected worldwide as of interest to customers of Israel-based NSO Group, maker of spyware Pegasus.
The New York Times report said warming relations after Modi came to power in India led to the deal in question at the time.
The Modi government is today due to refute New York Times revelations that he indeed subscribed through the payment of ₹300 crore taxpayers’ money to the Pegasus spyware sold by the Israeli company NSO. This implies prima facie that our government misled the Supreme Court and Parliament. Water gate?
— Subramanian Swamy (@Swamy39) January 29, 2022
“Modi’s visit [to Israel in 2017] was particularly cordial, with a carefully staged moment of him and the Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu walking barefoot together on a local beach,” the newspaper said.
“Their countries had agreed to sell a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence equipment worth around $2 billion – with Pegasus and a missile system as centerpieces” , did he declare.
“Months later, Netanyahu made a rare state visit to India. And in June 2019, India voted in favor of Israel at the UN Economic and Social Council to deny observer status to a Palestinian human rights organization, a first for the nation.
India’s Ministry of Defense told parliament last year that it “did not enter into any transactions with NSO Group Technologies”.
But India’s main opposition party, Congress, has accused the government of committing “treason”.
“Modi Govt bought Pegasus to spy on our key democratic institutions, our politicians and our public. Government officials, opposition leaders, the armed forces, the judiciary have all been targeted by these wiretaps. This is a betrayal,” Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted on Saturday.
Another senior Congress official, Mallikarjun Kharge, said on Twitter, “Why did Modi Govt act like the enemies of India and use a weapon of war against Indian citizens?”
Al Jazeera attempted to contact spokespersons for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but the calls went unanswered.
A senior minister said in a tweet that the NYT could not be “trusted”.
Last October, India’s Supreme Court set up a three-member panel to investigate the alleged use of Israeli spyware for surveillance purposes in India.
NSO Group, which does not disclose its customer list, has been mired in controversy in recent years following investigations by researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, as well as several advocacy groups. rights and media, who discovered that the technology had been used by governments. around the world to access the smartphones of political opponents, activists and journalists.
The Israeli government distanced itself from the issue after the United States blacklisted the tech company late last year.
After a months-long investigation, the NYT also said the Federal Bureau of Investigation also tested the spyware “for years with the intention of using it for national surveillance until the agency finally decides. last year of not deploying the tools”.
Using military-grade spyware against its own citizens is a criminal activity undertaken by authoritarian rulers, who lack security and are afraid of their own people. They do not believe in citizens’ rights or in any institutional responsibility.
— Sushant Singh (@SushantSin) January 29, 2022
According to the newspaper report, many ministers, politicians, activists, businessmen and journalists have been potentially targeted by the Pegasus software.
Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch said one of its senior staff 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, which also oversees its crisis response in countries including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Israel, Myanmar, Occupied Palestinian Territory , Syria and the United States, HRW said.