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US concerned over ‘misuse’ of spyware Pegasus to snoop on journalists, others

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The Joe Biden led United States administration has expressed concern over the “misuse” of spyware technology and said that it didn’t have any special insights into the Indian situation.

Quoting acting assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs Dean Thompson said, a Times of India report said: “The whole notion of using this type of technology against civil society, or regime critics, or journalists, or anybody like that through extrajudicial means is always concerning.”

“We don’t have any particular special insights into the India case. I know this is a broader issue, but I will say that we’ve been quite vocal about trying to find ways for companies to be able to ensure that their technology is not used in these types of ways. And we will certainly continue to press those issues,” he told reporters during a conference call on Friday.

Thompson also confirmed that US secretary of state Antony Blinken would raise the issues of human rights and civil liberties, though in a constructive way, at talks with his Indian counterpart scheduled for Tuesday.

“I will tell you that we will raise it, and we will continue that conversation, ” he said, according to the report.

The Biden administration’s sermon on spyware comes amid a domestic flap involving allegations by Fox News host Tucker Carlson that the US National Security Agency was spying on him and reading his emails in an effort to take him off the air. However, the NSA has denied the allegation.

Earlier, a leaked database was accessed by Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International and it had come to the fore that an Israeli spyware Pegasus has been used by an unidentified agency to conduct surveillance on journalists, Indian politicians, activists, and many others.

The data was later shared with The Guardian, The Washington Post, Le Monde, The Wire, among others, as part of a collaborative investigation called the ‘Pegasus Project’.

A number of Kashmiri journalists were also part of the surveillance program. The names include Aurangzeb Naqshbandi and Muzamil Jaleel of The Indian Express, Shabir Hussein Buchh, an independent journalist, and Iftikar Gilani, a journalist covering JK.

The list also includes two serving Cabinet ministers at the GoI, three opposition leaders, a Constitutional authority, government officials, and scientists.

The following people were the potential targets of surveillance, some of them were successfully spied upon, according to the investigation.

The journalists include Shishir Gupta, Prashant Jha, Rahul Singh, Aurangzeb Naqshbandi, and Saikat Dutta, all associated with Hindustan Times, Vijaita Singh of The Hindu, Muzamil Jaleel, Ritika Chopra and Sushant Singh of The Indian Express, Sandeep Unnithan of India Today, Siddharth Varadarajan, Swati Chaturvedi, Devirupa Mitra, Rohini Singh and MK Venu of The Wire, Gopikrishnan of The Pioneer, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, journalist and adviser of NewsClick, Manoranjana Gupta, editor-in-chief, of Frontier TV, Shabir Hussein Buchh, independent journalist, Iftikar Gilani, journalist covering JK, Smita Sharma, IndianAhead, Prem Shankar Jha, Indian economist, Santosh Bhartiya,  a journalist and an ex-MP, Deepak Gidwani, independent journalist, Bhupinder Singh Sajjan, Punjabi journalist, and Jaspal Singh Heran, a Punjabi journalist.

The list also mentions activists, businessmen, and those from the legal fraternity. A number registered in the name of a sitting Supreme Court judge was also on the database, The Wire, a web portal which was part of the global media project involving 16 other outlets, reported late Sunday evening.

As per the report, two founding editors of The Wire are on this list, as is its diplomatic editor and two of its regular contributors, including Rohini Singh. Singh’s number appears after she filed back-to-back reports on the business affairs of home minister Amit Shah’s son, Jay Shah, and Nikhil Merchant, a businessman who is close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and while she was investigating the dealings of a prominent minister, Piyush Goyal, with businessman Ajay Piramal.

The report added that the number of former Indian Express journalist Sushant Singh appears on the list in mid-2018, at a time when he was working on an investigation into the controversial Rafale aircraft deal with France, besides other stories. Digital forensics conducted on Singh’s current phone showed signs of Pegasus infection earlier this year.

India was among the 10 countries where the numbers were concentrated with Mexico topping the list with 15,000 numbers. A large share of the numbers was also from West Asian countries such as UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan, France and Hungary being the other prominent countries on the list.

This is the second time that Pegasus has been linked to phone surveillance. In 2019, some WhatsApp users in India, including journalists and activists, were informed that their phones had been compromised.

The Government of India, however, dismissed allegations of any kind of surveillance on its part on specific people, saying it “has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever”.

Asserting that “India is a robust democracy that is committed to ensuring the right to privacy to all its citizens as a fundamental right”, the GoI dismissed the media report as an attempt to playing “the role of an investigator, prosecutor as well as jury”.

 

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