On 27 July, as part of an international investigation, The Wire reported that the phone number of Thirumurugan Gandhi was among a leaked database of over 50,000 numbers listed as potential targets for surveillance by a client of the Israel-based NSO group. The Wire and 16 other international partners have found that several numbers on the list were infected with Pegasus, a malware that allows the hacker to access and monitor a phone. The leaked database was accessed by Forbidden Stories, a French non-profit media organisation, and Amnesty International’s Security Lab conducted a forensic analysis of some of the phones listed in the database.
Gandhi is the founder of the May 17 Movement, an organisation that advocates justice for victims of the genocide of Tamils by the Sri Lankan armed forces in 2009. He has been previously arrested several times for his advocacy. He spoke to Abhay Regi, an editorial fellow at The Caravan, about why he thinks he was targeted, the work of the May 17 Movement, and the government crackdown on it over the past few years.
Abhay Regi: When did you first find out about the possibility that your phone was infected with Pegasus?
Thirumurugan Gandhi: I found out alongside everyone else when the news broke. I have known for a while now that if the government did want to surveil people I would be quite high on that list. But even we thought that would only be something like wire taps. I don’t think I ever thought they would spy on me with something as sophisticated as Pegasus. Of course, I had been following news about Pegasus since the first reports about it being used to hack into the phones of those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Regi: Are you certain it was the union government that was behind this?
Gandhi: Yes. It is unsurprising that now, exactly like they had previously in the Bhima Koregaon case, the government is denying using Pegasus. But if you simply look at the list of people who were infected with the malware, it is very easy to surmise that only the government and Modi would have seen all of them as a threat. Nobody else fears so many journalists, human-rights activists, opposition politicians and bureaucrats.
Their denial is largely immaterial, we knew they would deny it. I think what we need to fear is the potential uses they can have for a technology like this. I think we need to understand Bhima Koregaon as just the first step in a model they have built. A model by which they can criminalise any public event of any ideology that they disagree with. I fear that we will likely see more such cases of mass arrests under draconian laws and evidence planted using something like Pegasus.