Intent in conversation, the two men stood ankle-deep in seawater, facing each other along the shores of Israel’s blue-green Mediterranean Sea. They might have passed off for sundry beachgoers—but for the fact that one of them was dressed in formal office wear, the kind one might wear for a business conference.
The men were none other than Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was 2017, and this was the first time an Indian Prime Minister had visited Israel. Over the last two decades, India and Israel have cultivated a close partnership, the well-known centerpiece of which is Israel’s arms exports. The sale of surveillance technology by Israel is the newest aspect of their ties.
A 17-member international reporting consortium revealed in July 2021 that NSO Group, a private Israeli surveillance company, had sold Pegasus, a cyberweapon or spyware, to a number of governments. On accessing a smart phone, Pegasus can transform it into a “24-hour surveillance device” that can copy messages, view photos, record conversations, know the user’s location, and secretly video record the user. The spyware was used to target journalists, human rights activists, and politicians in numerous countries, including Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Panama, Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates, and India.
In July 2021, The Wire, a New Delhi-based media outlet, reported that “phone numbers of over 40 Indian journalists appear[ed] on a leaked list of potential targets for surveillance, and forensic tests have confirmed that some of them were successfully snooped upon by an unidentified agency using Pegasus spyware.”
The Indian government denied allegations that it had used the software illicitly, saying “no unauthorized interception” had occurred and called the allegations an attempt to malign Indian democracy and its institutions.
In January 2022, the New York Times reported that India and Israel had “agreed on the sale of a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear worth roughly $2 billion—with Pegasus and a missile system as the centerpieces.”
Israel’s hacking and surveillance industry is well-known. In 2021, firms in Israel’s cyber industry raised $8.8 billion in investments over 100 different deals, according to Israel’s National Cyber Directorate.
According to the international journalism nonprofit Rest of World, private Israeli companies have sold surveillance technology to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Botswana, Nigeria, Angola, Uganda, Ethiopia, Honduras, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago.
Governments and the private sector are close collaborators in the market for digital surveillance tools, according to a 2019 United Nations report on surveillance and human rights. Governments use surveillance software developed, marketed, and supported by private companies. The market itself is “shrouded in secrecy.”
“Surveillance of specific individuals—often journalists, activists, opposition figures, critics, and others exercising their right to freedom of expression—has been shown to lead to arbitrary detention, sometimes to torture, and possibly to extrajudicial killings,” according to the 2019 UN report.
As far as the India-Israel relationship is concerned, India only formally established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. The reasons for delayed recognition were varied and included the “need to pursue energy and economic security with the Gulf Arab states; Cold War realities and its dependence on the Soviet Union; a perceived pre-eminent role in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM); and sensitivity of policymakers to its large Muslim constituency coupled with the traditional unwavering support to the Palestinian cause,” NAK Browne, a retired Air Chief Marshal, wrote in India and Israel: The Making of a Strategic Partnership.
Since then, the two countries have forged close ties. Israel provided military supplies to India during the latter’s Kargil war with Pakistan in 1999. But even before India and Israel established diplomatic ties, Israel aided India with ammunition during the latter’s wars with China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. More recently, India used Israeli ammunition during an airstrike into Pakistan’s Balakot in 2019.
The relationship became especially strong from 2014 onwards, when the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in India. The two countries have since been described as natural allies and strategic partners. Currently, India and Israel cooperate in a range of fields such as agriculture, the diamonds trade, water conservation, education and tourism, but defense and security are the most significant areas.
Defense purchases from Israel are believed to be over $1 billion annually. During the period 2015-2019, India’s arms imports from Israel increased by 175 percent , according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Between 2016-2020, India was the second-largest importer of arms in the world. Israel was India’s third largest source of arms, behind Russia and France. The countries also back each other at the United Nations and do not criticize each other’s actions.
It was not arms deals but India’s acquisition and use of Pegagus spyware that has generated a political uproar in the country. While Prime Minister Modi has stayed silent on the latest allegations, the opposition Indian National Congress claims that illegal snooping using spyware amounts to treason. India’s Supreme Court ordered an inquiry into the matter, which is still underway.
Pegasus spyware was used to target a dizzying array of individuals, including journalists, serving and retired government bureaucrats, ministers, academicians, lawyers, students, businessmen, and others. Journalists associated with The Wire, The Indian Express, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, India Today, and other publications and freelance journalists were targeted. Prominent politicians like Rahul Gandhi of the opposition Indian National Congress party, his aides, election strategist Prashant Kishor, the former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa, at least two ministers in Narendra Modi’s cabinet, and a woman who accused ex-Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment all were targets of surveillance.
Gandhi said his phones are “clearly tapped.” He argued that the use of Pegasus, classified by Israel as a weapon, on Indian citizens constitutes an attack on the country and its institutions. “This is treason,” he said.
Vijeta Singh, a journalist with The Hindu who was also targeted, said, “I wasn’t aware that my phone is being watched. I had my phone forensically analyzed by The Wire team. They have found traces of hacks being attempted on my phone”.
The Indian government disputed the allegations, with Home Minister Amit Shah dismissing the claims about Pegasus as an act by “disrupters and obstructers” who wanted to derail India’s progress.
At least 14 opposition political parties demanded a discussion in the Indian Parliament in August 2021. A joint statement by the parties labeled the government “arrogant and obdurate” in its refusal to discuss the matter. The opposition intensified calls for a Parliamentary discussion in January following a New York Times article that confirmed India’s purchase of Pegasus from Israel.
Prime Minister Modi’s silence through the political storm around Pegasus and what is being called India’s “Watergate moment” is conspicuous. The Indian government continues to avoid confirming or denying the purchase and use of Pegasus in India. It refused to file a detailed affidavit despite demands from the Supreme Court, blocked questions on the matter, and avoided a discussion in Parliament.
Pegasus was controversial in India even before 2021. In 2019, the messaging service WhatsApp informed the Indian government that the cellphones of 121 people were spied on by Pegasus. After questions were raised in the Indian Parliament, “the government resorted to obfuscation in its reply, neither confirming nor denying it had bought Pegasus from its Israeli manufacturer,” Sushant Singh, a journalist whose phone was targeted by Pegasus, wrote in Foreign Policy.
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