Monday, August 15th, 2022 07:07:20

Mission Pegasus to Isolate Israel and Remove Modi

By Prakash Nanda
Updated: August 1, 2021 3:58 pm

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi alleges  that all his telephone are tapped by the Modi government.

How does he know that ? “My sources in the Intelligence Bureau told me so”, Rahul Gandhi says.

So what to do? “ Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah must resign and there has to be a Supreme Court-monitored enquiry”, Rahul’s followers in the Congress party and outside (in our universities, think tanks, groups of retired civil servants who have been ignored by Modi in getting post-retirement employments, and  media houses) demand. They are now joined by the other opposition parties.

Of course, Rahul and his acolytes would have been happier if his name would have been in the list declared by “the Wire” news portal, which is a partner of the so called Pegasus Project with other anti-India publications like London’s “The Guradian” and the US newspaper “Washington Post”. What must be making Rahul Gandhi doubly sorry is that  the Wire updates effortlessly  by adding to the list of the Indians whose phones are under surveillance by the Modi government  every second day but has refrained so far from adding his name.

But then it does not make any difference since his grouse as well as that of the Wire have all merged in the “great band ” of the Pegasus Project. This Project, like Rahul, only  alleges but refuses or is unable to provide proof.

The Project’s principal aim is to isolate Israel internationally and undo its creation if possible. But “Modi hatao ”(remove Modi) has also become a welcome collateral  in this endeavour of reaching the goal by creating an atmosphere of doubt through unverifiable allegations.

Let us now go little deeper  to understand this Project.

It has to be admitted that unlike its first attempt in 2016, the investigative series called the Pegasus Project, which describes the expanded use of digital surveillance, through powerful software provided by the Israeli firm NSO Group, by governments worldwide has caused a massive international uproar in its second major attempt this time.

It is apparent that unlike in 2016 when targets were shown to be essentially rights activists, dissidents and journalists from Middle East, this time if it is in headlines it is because the Project has  significantly widened  the scope of potential targets to include members of Arab royal families, Indian politicians, diplomats and business executives.

Besides, the news is released through a media-consortium that includes the powerful   The Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde and Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

However, beyond the uproar lies an important question that does not have easy answer. Is the Pegasus Project aimed at debating the very idea of secret surveillance by the state or the government against individual citizens or is its aim mainly political with specific governments or countries as targets?

Approximately 50,000 phone numbers appear on a surveillance hacking list containing business executives, human rights activists, journalists, politicians, and government officials. These individuals come from at least 50 countries. Three facts here are noteworthy.

First, the list of the disclosed telephone numbers that is shown under the suspected surveillance is not the current list. The list covered the period mostly up to the year 2018-end.

Secondly,    the Project Pegasus, a collaborative effort of Paris-based NGO Forbidden Stories, Amnesty International, Citizen Lab and 17 media houses from the 10 countries, including the Wire news-portal of India, has not identified the source of the leak. Nor has it authenticated the data to protect the safety of its source. What is said is that the Amnesty collected the data and the Citizen Lab vetted Amnesty’s methodology for confirming Pegasus’ infections and deemed it sound.

Thirdly, the Amnesty has clarified that a phone number’s presence in the data does not necessarily mean an attempt was made to hack a device.  Digital forensics conducted by Amnesty International’s Security Lab has not conclusively found in the phones that it tested that those were compromised by Pegasus spyware.

Of the smart phones of 67 people that Amnesty was able to examine on the list, it found only 23 infected, with 14 phones showing signs of attempted intrusion. Test scan on the remaining 30 smart phones remained inconclusive.

It may be noted that the NSO is only one of its kind in the international market for surveillance purposes. This point should be kept in mind as the NSO Group is insisting that its products are primarily used by law enforcement agencies for legitimate crime-fighting purposes. More importantly, NSO- exports are vetted through the Israeli Defence Ministry, which, in turn, “approves the export of cyber products exclusively to governmental entities, for lawful use, and only for the purpose of preventing and investigating crime and counter terrorism.”

In other words, what the NSO or the Israeli government is saying is that since its products are not sold to individuals or private entities, it has little to do with targeting them.

In the global market, Germany’s “FinFisher”, like Pegasus, is marketed as a tool to help intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight crime. Its abuse was also noted in Bahrain.

Italian firm “Hacking Team” is also an application, which after a Pegasus-style scandal in 2015 for selling spyware to dozens of governments outside, has since been rebranded as Memento Labs.

Similarly, it is well-known how the Canadian company “Sandvine” has sold censorship technology to Belarus and Egypt.

The French firm Nexa Technologies has exported internet surveillance equipment to Libya and Egypt.

And the U.S.-based company Oracle has provided surveillance products in China.

The point is that while many Western companies have a long track record of selling powerful surveillance tools to many governments, many of them being authoritarian, the Project Pegasus selectively targeting Israeli NSO and other Israeli companies over the last few years has not avoided attentions of many analysts.

In fact, last fortnight, the Citizen Lab claimed that  Candiru , another Israeli cyber warfare group,  weaponised vulnerabilities in Microsoft and Google products, allowing governments to hack more than 100 journalists, activists and political dissidents globally mainly in Turkey and Singapore) . The allegations are that Candiru often recruits veterans of the army’s elite units, and sells software that allows its clients to hack computers and cell phones remotely.

And in 2017, Citizen Lab had found that Ethiopia had used spyware developed by Cyberbit — yet another Israeli firm — to infect the computers of exiled dissidents.

The systematic campaign by the Project Pegasus against Israel has made its sympathisers and supporters to campaign for isolating Israel diplomatically and boycotting Israeli products, at least in countries that are democratic. So much so that Amnesty has also filed a suit against NSO Group. It leads the campaign otherwise against the alleged Israeli atrocities in areas dominated by the Palestinians.

In fact, there is now an organisation called “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS) movement. It is a loose amalgam of groups and individuals, who call for economic and cultural pressure on Israel in solidarity with the Palestinians, a call started by Palestinians activists.

BDS’ strategy is said to be twofold: “that international pressure will exert a dramatic toll on Israel and on Israeli citizens, and that Israelis will then see and opt for a political path out of this pressure.”  The U.S.-based ice cream brand Ben and Jerry’s recent decision to stop selling its products to the Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem and West Bank needs to be seen in this context.

The BDS, which is now at the forefront to capitalise on the allegations of the Project Pegasus, is hoping for the best from demonising Israel. It has now many allies in the media groups that are parts of the Project. Most of these media personalities are of “Left/Liberal” persuasion and have written critically on Israel, of late.

Another factor to note in this campaign against Israel is also American billionaire George Soros, whose philanthropic outfit “Open Society Foundations “ is a major source of financial support for the entities such as Amnesty, Citizen Lab, Forbidden Stories and Foreign Architecture. All of them happen to be the leading and important components of the Project Pegasus.

Soros is alleged by Israel  that he is “continuously undermining Israel’s democratically elected governments,” by his funding of organizations “that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”

Soros claims to be a big advocate for liberal democracies everywhere and his organisation supports the forces fighting autocrats and suppressers of dissent and human rights, a reason why he is not liked by Hungary, Turkey and Russia too.

Soros also happens to be big critic of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In his speech delivered at the World Economic Forum held at Davos on January 24, 2020, Soros had said, “Nationalism, far from being reversed, made further headway. The biggest and most frightening setback occurred in India, where a democratically elected Narendra Modi is creating a Hindu nationalist state, imposing punitive measures on Kashmir, a semi-autonomous Muslim region, and threatening to deprive millions of Muslims of their citizenship.”

This is the reason why some analysts have argued that Soros’s personal opinion and his funding of the consortium of the Project Pegasus have played a huge role in India becoming a target of the story.

It is also being pointed out in this regard that Soros happens to be an associate of the Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, one of the financers of the Forbidden Stories as well “Sherpa”, the French NGO, which is a persistent litigator in the so-called scam in France over the sale of Rafale fighters to India.

Viewed thus,  the Project Pegasus is nothing but an ideological battlefront whose primary goal is to weaken Israel but has allowed its Indian stakeholders to use it as a platform for gaining co-campaigners to change the Modi regime.

 

By Prakash Nanda

(prakash.nanda@hotmail.com)

 

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