ISLAMABAD: The government on Saturday announced that Pakistan was facing India’s cyber war and had decided to hold an investigation into hacking of phones of Prime Minister Imran Khan and senior military officials by India with the help of an Israeli espionage software.
The government believes that the cyber attack was an attempt on the sovereignty of Pakistan and therefore it would take legal action against Israeli surveillance company NSO in the International Court of Justice.
International media reports said India was among a number of countries using the Israeli company’s spyware in attempted and successful hacks of smart phones belonging to journalists, government officials and human rights activists around the world.
At least one number once used by Prime Minister Imran Khan was on India’s list, an investigation by 17 media organisations published last Sunday revealed.
Govt mulls legal action against Israeli surveillance firm
The extent of the use of the spyware Pegasus was reported by the Washington Post, the Guardian, Le Monde and other news outlets which collaborated on an investigation into the data leak.
“We are investigating the matter even if the United Nations refrains from doing so,” Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said at a joint press conference with Adviser to the Prime Minister on Accountability Shahzad Akbar.
“Before filing the investigation report, the Guardian contacted me and gave me three cell phone numbers of Prime Minister Khan so that I confirm that these were really his (PM’s) phone numbers,” the minister said, adding that the newspaper had information that these three cell numbers of the prime minister were hacked by India through Pegasus spyware.
According to the Post, more than 1,000 phone numbers in India appeared on the surveillance list while hundreds were from Pakistan, including the one PM Khan once used. However, the Post did not specify whether the surveillance attempt on Mr Khan’s number was successful.
Indian investigative news website The Wire reported that 300 mobile phone numbers used in India, including those of ministers, opposition leaders, journalists, scientists and rights activists, were on the list.
Mr Akbar said the government had decided to thoroughly investigate the attempted Indian cyber espionage attacks on mobile phones and gadgets of top government functionaries.
“Officials from security agencies and Foreign Office would be included in the inquiry committee to probe a data leak of the software sold by the Israeli surveillance company NSO to India,” he said, adding that the findings of the investigations would be shared with the United Nations and other international organisations.
The investigation would ascertain whether the Indian cyber attack was successful or not, he said. Pakistan would also take up the espionage issue at the United Nations.
Terming it an attack on national security and sovereignty of Pakistan, Mr Akbar said: “The Indian act is clear breach of global norms of responsible state behaviour. Pakistan would weigh legal options to raise the issue at various fora to protect its sovereignty.”
The adviser said Pakistan had decided to seek a United Nations probe into India’s use of Pegasus spyware against the country’s top officials as espionage of such nature was a bigger scam than Panama Papers leak.
He urged relevant United Nations bodies to conduct a thorough investigation to determine whether India used Israeli-made Pegasus spyware to spy on public figures, including Prime Minister Khan, and bring the facts to light.
He said that Indian espionage of Pakistan was exposed by an investigation by a group of 17 international media organisations and Amnesty International which revealed that Pakistan was a potential surveillance target of the spyware bought from Israel by India.
The Foreign Office, Mr Akbar said, had already issued a statement accusing India of state-sponsored, continuing and widespread surveillance and spying operations.
The Pegasus malware is used to conduct cyber surveillance by authoritarian governments that want to spy on journalists, activists, politicians and government officials. The software can infiltrate iPhones and Android systems, enabling the operator to record calls, retrieve photos, messages and emails without the knowledge of the phone user. The company claims that it sells the software to only those who want to use it against terrorists and criminals.
A massive data leak from the company’s records showed its clients might have used data against targets who fell into neither of those categories, the adviser said. The leak contains the phone numbers of 50,000 individuals.
The NSO has said its product is intended only for use by vetted government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime.
The adviser said according to the investigation of Amnesty International, Prime Minister Khan was on a list of those people against whom the spyware was used by India. At least 10 countries, including India, are believed to be NSO clients.
Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2021