Srinagar: Phone numbers of former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti’s family, Kashmiri politicians, separatist leaders and journalists were selected as possible targets for phone surveillance between 2017 and 2019, online news portal The Wire said on Friday.
The Wire, part of a 17-member global investigative media consortium, reported that two family members of Mufti were found on a list of people who could potentially be targeted by Pegasus, an Israeli military grade spyware to infiltrate phones for snooping and surveillance.
Their names were chosen months before Mufti’s coalition government collapsed after the Bharatiya Janata Party withdrew support.
Sharing the link of The Wire’s story, Mufti said in a tweet: “A spyware used against terrorists has been weaponised to deal with political opponents & dissenters. BJP has taken a leaf out of how Britishers would suspect & treat Indians during the colonial era. GOI has gone rogue & is brazenly subverting basic human rights.”
Mufti, who is now a trenchant critic of the BJP and part of an alliance pushing for the restoration of the region’s statehood and special status, told The Wire that surveillance, as a concept, was not new for Kashmiris.
To be sure, the presence of a number does not indicate the individual’s phone was hacked — just that it was of interest. In the absence of digital forensics of specific devices, it is not possible to conclusively establish that the phones linked to these numbers were hacked.
In all, about 25 people from the region were found on the list of potential targets, the website said.
Also on the list was separatist leader and Hurriyat Conference chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, separatist leader Bilal Lone and former Delhi University professor SAR Geelani. Forensic analysis found traces of Pegasus software on Lone and Geelani’s phones, The Wire reported.
“Hacking into people’s phone for surveillance, is a willful and direct violation of the universally acknowledged fundamental right to privacy a basic human right and those involved in it should be tried,” a Hurriyat spokesman said.
J&K Apni Party president Altaf Bukhari’s brother Tariq Bukhari was also found on the list of potential suspects between 2017 and 2019. Bukhari was one of the 14 Kashmiri leaders who attended a landmark meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month.
At least five Kashmiri journalists were named as well.
The Pegasus row erupted on Sunday night after the consortium reported that India was among countries that used Israeli company NSO Group’s phone hacking software to potentially target politicians, journalists and activists.
The first report alleged that 38 Indian journalists, including three current Hindustan Times staffers and one from sister publication Mint, were among 180 journalists potentially targeted worldwide. Subsequent reports said that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa and two sitting Union ministers – including Vaishnaw — were on the list of potential targets.
The allegations roiled Parliament. The government as well as the BJP refused any wrongdoing and insisted that India had a well-established protocol for tapping telephones and it was used only for national security. But the Opposition called for a separate probe into the charges.