Israeli Pegasus spyware and a missile system were the ‘centerpieces’ of an estimated $2 billion deal in sophisticated weapons and intelligence equipment between India and Israel in 2017, according to a report by the New York Times. A massive controversy erupted last year when the NSO Group made headlines with the alleged use of its Pegasus software by some governments to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, politicians and others in a number of countries, including India, has raised concerns over privacy issues.
The NYT, in a report titled “The Battle for the World’s Most Powerful Cyber Weapon,” said Israeli firm NSO Group had for nearly a decade “sold its subscription-based surveillance software to law enforcement and to intelligence agencies around the world. , promising that it could do what no one else – not a private company, not even a state intelligence service – could do: consistently and reliably decrypt encrypted communications from any iPhone smartphone or Android. The report also refers to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel in July 2017 – to become the first Indian prime minister to visit the country.
“For decades, India had maintained a policy of what it called ‘commitment to the Palestinian cause’, and relations with Israel were frosty. Modi’s visit, however, was particularly cordial, with a carefully staged moment of him and (then Israeli) Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu walking barefoot together on a local beach,” he said.
“They were right about the warm feelings. 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. “Months later, Netanyahu paid 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.” , says the report.
The PTI contacted the government for a reaction to the NYT report, but there was no immediate response.
Last year, a row erupted over Israeli spyware Pegasus which was allegedly used for targeted surveillance in India. The government, however, has dismissed claims of any form of surveillance by it on specific people, saying it “has no concrete basis or truth associated with it”.
In October last year, the Supreme Court set up a 3-member independent panel to investigate the alleged use of Israeli spyware Pegasus for targeted surveillance in India, observing that the state does not can’t get a “free pass” every time the national security spectrum is threatened. raised and that its mere invocation cannot make justice a “silent spectator” and be the bete noire from which it eludes. The NYT report said the FBI also purchased a version of Pegasus, “NSO’s first spy tool.”
It was around last summer that the FBI “decided not to deploy the NSO weapons. It was during this time that a consortium of news organizations called Forbidden Stories came forward with new revelations about NSO cyber weapons and their use against journalists and political dissidents. The Pegasus system is currently dormant at the New Jersey facility. An international investigative consortium had claimed that many Indian ministers, politicians, activists, businessmen and journalists were potentially targeted by the NSO Group’s phone hacking software.
The report states that since 2011, when NSO “introduced” Pegasus to the global market, it had “assisted Mexican authorities in capturing Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug lord known as El Chapo”.
European investigators quietly used Pegasus to foil terrorist plots, fight organized crime and, in one case, dismantle a global child abuse ring, identifying dozens of suspects in more than 40 countries, he said. declared.
“In a broader sense, NSO’s products appeared to solve one of the biggest problems facing law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the 21st century: criminals and terrorists had better technology to encrypt their communications than the investigators had to decrypt them. The criminal underworld had turned dark even as it became increasingly global,” according to the report.
However, over the years “the many abuses of Pegasus had also been well documented”. “Mexico deployed the software not only against gangsters but also against journalists and political dissidents. The United Arab Emirates used the software to hack into the phone of a civil rights activist the government threw in jail.
“Saudi Arabia used it against women’s rights activists and, according to a complaint filed by a Saudi dissident, to spy on communications with Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post, whom Saudi agents killed and dismembered in Istanbul in 2018,” the NYT said. says the report.
The report says its year-long investigation, which included interviews with government officials, heads of intelligence and law enforcement agencies, cyberweapons experts, business executives and security activists privacy in a dozen countries, “shows how Israel’s ability to approve or deny access to NSO cyberweapons has become entangled with its diplomacy.”
“Countries like Mexico and Panama changed their positions toward Israel in key votes at the United Nations after gaining access to Pegasus,” the report added.
Amid controversy raging around the world, Israel set up a committee in July to examine allegations of misuse of the NSO Group’s surveillance software and hinted at a possible “examination of the whole question of licensing”. NSO’s then chief executive, Shalev Hulio, welcomed the decision at the time, saying he would be “very happy if there was an investigation so that we can clear our name”.
Hulio also claimed that there was an effort “to smear the entire Israeli cyber industry”.
Israel in November last year distanced itself from the controversy sparked by the NSO Group after the United States blacklisted the tech company, which had developed the Pegasus spyware that was allegedly used to targeting government officials, activists and journalists around the world, claiming it is a private company and has nothing to do with Israeli government policy.
The United States has sanctioned the Herzliya-based company for alleged misuse of its phone-hacking spyware in countries around the world, including India.