Pegasus list: India may have snooped on Dalai Lama advisors, Tibetan government-in-exile

29 August 2021
Lobsang Sangay, the former president of the Tibetan government-in-exile speaks to the Dalai Lama during a function in Dharamshala. The phone numbers of Tibetan officials and advisors close to the Dalai Lama appeared on a leaked database of numbers that may have been targets of surveillance using the Pegasus spyware.
Ashwini Bhatia / AP Photo
Lobsang Sangay, the former president of the Tibetan government-in-exile speaks to the Dalai Lama during a function in Dharamshala. The phone numbers of Tibetan officials and advisors close to the Dalai Lama appeared on a leaked database of numbers that may have been targets of surveillance using the Pegasus spyware.
Ashwini Bhatia / AP Photo

In July, the Pegasus Project, an international investigative collaboration of 17 media outlets, revealed that the Pegasus spyware may have been used to target 50,000 phone numbers globally. In India, the list of suspected targets included journalists, rights activists, politicians, and a former election commissioner. But in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, another unlikelier group appeared as a potential target for surveillance: the Tibetan government-in-exile.

The phone numbers of Tibetan officials and advisors close to Tenzin Gyatso, the Tibetan spiritual leader referred to as the fourteenth Dalai Lama, appeared on a leaked database of numbers that may have been targets for surveillance by clients of the NSO group, an Israeli firm behind the Pegasus spyware. The NSO group has stated that it sells Pegasus only to governments. The leaked database was accessed by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based non-profit media organisation, and the global rights-group Amnesty International. There were at least 1000 Indian numbers on the database. Amnesty International’s Security Lab conducted forensic analysis on a number of the phones on this list, confirming that they showed signs of either attempted or successful Pegasus hacking.

The government of the Tibetan community-in-exile, called the Central Tibetan Administration, is headquartered in the hill station of Dharamshala. It was established shortly after the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, escaping a crackdown by the Chinese government. It is structured like a parliamentary democracy, with an executive, legislative, and a judicial branch.

Among those listed as possible surveillance targets were Lobsang Sangay, the former president of the Tibetan government-in-exile, who served from 2011 until 2021, and Lobsang Tenzin, the religious figure commonly referred to as the fifth Samdhong Rinpoche, who preceded Sangay as the political leader of the community-in-exile. Others listed included Tempa Tsering, the Dalai Lama’s envoy in New Delhi, Tenzin Taklha and Chimmey Rigzen, both aides to the Dalai Lama, and Urgyen Trinley Dorji, the seventeenth Karmapa Lama, one of the highest-ranking figures in Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama himself reportedly does not carry a personal cell phone.

I spoke to Tenzin Lekshay, the media spokesperson for the Central Tibetan Administration. When asked if this changes the Tibetan government’s perception of the Indian government, his response was brief. “No, not at all,” he said. “Other than the media reports, we don’t have any information on that … so we cannot just comment on this issue. And as far as the relationship between India and Tibet, it is strong and is getting stronger.”

Lewis Page is a Luce Scholar at The Caravan.

Keywords: Tibetan Government in Exile Tibet Pegasus Project Pegasus
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