Prime Minister Narendra Modi's main political rival Rahul Gandhi is among dozens of Indian politicians, journalists, activists and government critics who were identified as potential targets of an Israeli-made spyware, media reports said Monday.
More than 1,000 phone numbers in India were among tens of thousands worldwide selected as possibly of interest to clients of NSO Group, maker of the Pegasus spyware, according to a group of media outlets. The leaked list was shared with the news outlets by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit, and Amnesty International.
The identities behind around 300 of the Indian phone numbers were verified by the media outlets.
They include a woman who made sexual harassment allegations against India's former chief justice, as well as Tibetan Buddhist clerics, Pakistani diplomats and Chinese journalists, the reports said.
At least two employees of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based in India, including a US citizen, were also identified, along with the director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Indian operations, the outlets said.
It is not known how many of the phones on the list were actually targeted for surveillance or how many attempts were successful, according to the Washington Post, which was part of the collaborative investigation.
Forensic analyses performed on 22 smartphones in India whose numbers appeared on the list showed that 10 were targeted with Pegasus, seven of them successfully, the newspaper said.
Analysis of the Indian phone numbers strongly indicate intelligence agencies within the Indian government were behind the selection, the Guardian reported.
According to Indian news website The Wire, mounting forensic evidence of infections of phones in India suggests one or more official agency has been using the spyware to hack into smartphones.
- 'No concrete basis' -
Critics say that the world's largest democracy has become increasingly authoritarian under Prime Minister Modi, with the government accused of seeking to silence dissent. It denies this.
The Indian government reiterated in a statement to the Washington Post that "allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever".
One of those named as a potential surveillance target in 2017 was Ashwini Vaishnaw, India's newly sworn-in minister for electronics and information technology, the reports added.
Vaishnaw said on Monday in parliament that there was "no substance whatsoever" to the reports.
"Any form of illegal surveillance is not possible due to our checks and balances in our laws and robust institutions," Vaishnaw said.
Home Minister Amit Shah said the reports aimed to "humiliate India at the world stage, peddle the same old narratives about our nation and derail India's development trajectory."
Gandhi, from the main opposition Congress party, told the Guardian that if the allegations were correct, it was "an attack on the democratic foundations of our country".
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an independent journalist, said that the Amnesty International Digital Lab informed him that his phone was "compromised" in March, April and May of 2018.
"It also puts my sources at risk. People who are speaking to you on condition of anonymity, if they get compromised, that's terrible," he told AFP. "It's bad for democracy, it's bad for journalism. It is terrible."
NSO, which says it only licences Pegasus to governments, has called the allegations false and has denied any wrongdoing.