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India’s top court orders probe into use of spyware by Israel’s NSO

Pegasus phone-hacking software made by Israeli firm was potentially used on over 1,000 Indian numbers

In this July 20, 2021 file photo, Congress party workers shout slogans during a protest accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)
In this July 20, 2021 file photo, Congress party workers shout slogans during a protest accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)

NEW DELHI — India’s Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered an independent investigation into the alleged government use of Pegasus spyware on journalists, opposition politicians, and activists with the chief justice calling the implications “Orwellian.”

India was one of 45 countries where tens of thousands of numbers were targeted by the spyware made by Israeli firm NSO, according to leaked documents released this year.

More than 1,000 of the numbers were Indian and the Supreme Court order followed petitions from individuals that the chief justice Nuthalapati Venkata Ramana said “raise an Orwellian concern.”

He added that the court had accepted the petitions because “there has been no specific denial” by the government.

The state cannot be given a “free pass every time the specter of national security is raised,” the court said as it named cyber and computer science experts to look into the allegations.

Phones infected with Pegasus software, which is normally only sold to governments or security agencies, give the user access to the target’s messages and photos, and track their location.

A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, on August 24, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

Critics say that in India it is part of a growing assault on dissent and civil liberties under the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Indian government would not deny or confirm the use of Pegasus because of national security. It offered to set up its own committee.

Soon after the Pegasus reports emerged in July, India’s Parliament was disrupted by opposition calls for an investigation.

The Indian phone numbers put under surveillance reportedly included senior opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, journalists, activists, government critics, and former judges.

A woman who had accused India’s former chief justice of sexual harassment was also reported to be on the list.

The Washington Post said an analysis of more than 20 Indian phones on the list showed that 10 had been targeted by Pegasus, seven successfully.

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