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‘State-sponsored’ attacks on phones of India opposition leaders, says Apple

Apple has warned several Indian opposition leaders and journalists that their iPhones may have been targeted by “state-sponsored attackers”.

The technology giant on Tuesday sent messages to those likely hit, saying, “If your device is compromised by a state-sponsored attacker, they may be able to remotely access your sensitive data, communications, or even the camera and microphone.

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“While it’s possible this is a false alarm, please take this warning seriously,” said the alert from the company, without providing further details.

Among the politicians who received the alert were Trinamool Congress parliamentarian Mahua Moitra, MP and chief of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party, Asaduddin Owaisi, and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor and its spokespersons, Pawan Khera and Supriya Shrinate.

“Get a life,” Moitra posted on X, slamming the Indian prime minister’s and home minister’s office for “trying to hack into my phone and email”.

Moitra, a former investment banker, has been leading the opposition’s charge on Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his alleged connections to billionaire Gautam Adani, one of Asia’s richest men.

In January this year, Hindenburg Research, a United States-based company specialising in “short-selling”, published a report accusing the Adani Group of engaging in stock manipulation and accounting fraud for decades. The company denied the allegations, calling the report “malicious”.

The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) is investigating the allegations against the Adani Group but there has not been any breakthrough.

Earlier this month, a parliamentarian belonging to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused Moitra of asking questions targeting the Adani Group in parliament in exchange for bribes and gifts. While Moitra denies the charges, a parliamentary ethics committee began hearing the matter last week.

The other Indian politicians who received the alert from Apple include Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, Aam Aadmi Party’s parliamentarian Raghav Chadha, and Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) MP Priyanka Chaturvedi.

All the politicians, excluding Owaisi, are members of the INDIA alliance formed by nearly two dozen opposition parties to take on Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led bloc in the general elections next year.

Shiv Sena party’s Chaturvedi told Al Jazeera it was a “concerted attack on opposition leaders using sophisticated spyware to silence their voices”.

“It becomes the responsibility of the prime minister of the country to respond to what Apple is claiming. Apple has categorically said it is a state-sponsored attack on our phones and the government has not denied it,” she said.

“But the more they do it, the more pushback they will see from the opposition and the country. This is making the country aware of what really is happening. If you look at the entire nine years [of BJP rule], we see how the independence of government agencies has been reduced and how they are being undermined … Now, we are seeing how in a very coordinated attack, they are trying to hack into personal data, emails etc.”

Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of independent news website, The Wire, and Sriram Karri, resident editor of the Deccan Chronicle newspaper also said they received similar warnings from Apple, as did Samir Saran of the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank.

The Wire was part of a 2021 investigation by 17 media outlets and Amnesty International rights group that alleged the Indian government was using Pegasus, a spyware made by Israel’s cyber intelligence company NSO Group, to snoop on opposition politicians, dissident journalists and activists.

Among the people the investigation named were Rahul Gandhi of the Congress, former Indian election commissioner Ashok Lavasa, and former Central Bureau of Investigation director Alok Verma. The government denied the allegations.

India’s Supreme Court in August 2022 said some malware was found on five of the 29 phones its panel examined, but it was not clear if it was Pegasus.

On Tuesday, Varadarajan told Al Jazeera that deploying spyware against opposition leaders, journalists and members of civil society is “what they do as we saw in 2021 with the Pegasus Project revelations”.

“Apple is careful to say it does not attribute the threat notifications to any specific state-sponsored attacker, but if you look at the range of those whom Apple contacted in India, it is hard to imagine any specific state-sponsored attacker other than an Indian one,” he said.

“We are in an election season now and the BJP recognises it is vulnerable. These are people who use all weapons and fight on all fronts.”

Congress spokeswoman Shama Mohamed said the alleged attack on the Apple phones of her party leaders was dangerous.

“They [BJP] were using Pegasus and now, just months before elections, they want to win by hook or crook by knowing the data and details of opposition voices by snooping on their phones,” she told Al Jazeera.

In a post on X, federal Communications, Electronics and Information Technology Minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, said the information by Apple over the issue was “vague and non-specific in nature”.

“Apple states these notifications may be based on information which is ‘incomplete or imperfect’. It also states that some Apple threat notifications maybe false alarms or some attacks are not detected,” he wrote, adding that the government has asked the company to join its investigation into the allegations.

Apar Gupta, director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, an organisation which advocates for digital rights, said with imminent state assembly elections and the 2024 general elections not far off, the timing of the notifications from Apple was alarming.

“Public cynicism or judicial stupor should not preclude us from demanding an independent, transparent technical analysis and clear disclosures from the government of India regarding its spyware purchases and deployments. This issue strikes at the heart of Indian democracy,” he posted on X.

Rifat Fareed contributed to this report from New Delhi, India

Source: Al Jazeera

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