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Search on for 'lower profile' evesdropping sofware

India looking to acquire Pegasus-style spyware, Financial Times reports

Government seeking low-key alternative to Israeli system that can listen in on encrypted WhatsApp, other calls to snoop on critics, according to FT

Paran Balakrishnan Published 01.04.23, 01:19 PM
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The Indian government is scouring the globe for spyware it could use that’s “lower profile” than Pegasus, the advanced Israeli surveillance software that can eavesdrop even on encrypted WhatSapp and Signal conversations, the Financial Times (FT) has reported.

The FT said about a dozen makers of surveillance software companies are likely to put in bids in the coming weeks. The government is willing to spend anywhere up to $120 million to obtain the software, according to the newspaper which said it had spoken to people familiar with the matter. India’s defence ministry declined to comment on the report, the newspaper said.


The government has never acknowledged using Pegasus which is made by the NSO Group and a Supreme Court committee said it found no evidence of Pegasus being employed. But international tech experts have said they have found Pegasus malware on the phones of Indian journalists, academics and Opposition figures, including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. The New York Times alleged last year that India acquired Pegasus from Israel, a big weapons supplier to the country, as one of the “centrepieces” in a 2017 defence deal. The Indian government denied the newspaper report.

The top contenders to supply India with a Pegasus lookalike include Intellexa, an Israeli company which makes Predator surveillance spyware and which is being sued in a Greek court. Other companies likely to be in the running include Quadream and Cognyte, both Israeli surveillance technology companies. Quadream’s founders include two ex-NSO employees. Israel is home to the most sophisticated spyware companies in the world.

Several companies from countries including Australia, Italy, France, Cyprus and Belarus are likely to take part in India’s auction. Request for proposals are likely to go out in the coming weeks, the FT said.

India, the FT reported, feels that Israeli company NSO and its Pegasus hacking software have become too high-profile and is looking for a more low-key alternative. “India’s move shows how demand for this sophisticated – and largely unregulated – remains strong despite growing evidence that governments worldwide have abused spyware by targeting dissidents and critics,” the FT said.

Predator has already been sold to countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Madagascar and Oman, all of which have weak human rights records.

A Greek financial journalist, Thanasis Koukakis, launched a suit against Predator’s maker, Intellexa, after he was warned by digital researchers that his phone had been infected by the malware. Research is said to have shown that his phone had been infected for two months. The chief of the Greek secret service has admitted that it had placed malware on Koukakis’ phone. However, the government denies that it uses Predator.

In November, a Greek newspaper Documento reported that 33 people had been found to have Predator spyware on their phones. The people who had spyware on their phones included the finance minister and other senior government ministers, Opposition leaders and journalists.

US President Joe Biden has moved against Pegasus and other companies that create spyware used by governments to keep tabs on their own citizens. Biden signed an executive order earlier this week which ruled that federal agencies could not use spyware “that poses significant counterintelligence or security risks to the United States Government or significant risks of improper use by a foreign government or foreign person.” He added: “US taxpayer dollars should not support companies that are willing to sell their products to abet human rights violations.”

The US is said to believe that the spyware industry, which is reckoned to be worth an annual $12 billion, poses a significant threat to its national security.

The Norwegian sovereign wealth fund has sold its holdings of Verint, the publicly listed owner of Cognyte.

Two years ago, an investigation by a global media consortium came out with a global list of 50,000 people, including Indians, who had been allegedly targeted for surveillance by NSO customers since 2016. The allegations of widespread snooping touched off a political storm worldwide.

However, NSO claims its software is intended for hunting down criminals and terrorists and only sold to countries with good human rights records.

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