Amnesty International Exposes Israeli Spyware Targeting Indian Journalists

Published: 01 January 2024

Smartphone Pegasus

In October, Apple informed at least 20 people in India that they were being targeted by government-backed cyberattacks. (Photo: Pxhere, License)

By Erika Di Benedetto

An Amnesty International investigation revealed Thursday that the NSO Group's Pegasus spyware was repeatedly used to target several journalists in India.

Developed by the Israeli cyber-intelligence firm NSO Group, Pegasus is highly malicious software. It infiltrates mobile devices and gives hackers remote access to their targets’ messages, calls, emails, photos, and passwords.

Amnesty International's Security Lab confirmed that among the targeted journalists were Anand Mangnale, the South Asia Editor at OCCRP; and Siddharth Varadarajan, Founding Editor of The Wire. The most recent targeting case occurred in October 2023.

Mangnale was compromised by the spyware via its "zero-click" insertion method, which allows it to be installed without any action from the device owner, such as clicking on a suspicious link or downloading an attachment.

The Washington Post reached out to the NSO Group for comment. The company denied direct involvement in targeting journalists, explaining that they sell their products to law enforcement and state governments.

“While NSO cannot comment on specific customers, we stress again that all of them are vetted law enforcement and intelligence agencies that license our technologies for the sole purpose of fighting terror and major crime,” the cyber-intelligence firm said. “The company’s policies and contracts provide mechanisms to avoid targeting journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders or political dissidents that are not involved in terror or serious crimes. The company has no visibility to the targets, nor to the collected intelligence.”

As of now, there is no clear evidence on whether Indian authorities used the Pegasus spyware against journalists.

The Washington Post reported that officials under Prime Minister Narendra Modi promptly took action against Apple after the technology company sent notifications to journalists warning that they had been targeted by “state-sponsored attackers”.

High-ranking officials within Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration contacted Apple's representatives in India, requesting the company's assistance in lessening the political repercussions arising from the warnings.

Additionally, they called upon an Apple security expert from another country to attend a meeting in New Delhi. At said meeting, the government officials pushed the Apple expert to find different explanations behind the warnings users were receiving.

In October, Apple notified around 20 individuals in India, which included Ravi Nair — partner journalist at OCCRP — and Anand Mangnale, to alert them that they had been targeted by cyberattacks backed by a government entity.

Following the release of an OCCRP investigation in August 2023, which unveiled potentially contentious shareholders within India's third-largest conglomerate, journalists attached to the project became subject to intimidation and surveillance.

Specifically, the investigation detailed how two undisclosed investors in the Adani Group were closely linked to the Adani family, raising concerns about potential breaches of Indian trade regulations. The Adani Group denied these allegations.