Attentive to the conversation, the pair stood ankle-deep in seawater, facing each other along the shores of Israel’s blue-green Mediterranean Sea. They could have passed for various beachgoers, but for the fact that one of them was dressed in formal office attire, the kind one might wear to a business conference.
The men were none other than Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was in 2017, and it was the first time that an Indian prime minister had visited Israel. Over the past two decades, India and Israel have cultivated a close partnership, the well-known centerpiece of which is Israel’s arms exports. Israel’s sale of surveillance technology is the most recent aspect of their ties.
A 17-member international reporting consortium revealed in July 2021 that NSO Group, a private Israeli surveillance company, had sold Pegasus, a cyberweapon or spyware, to a number of governments. By accessing a smart phone, Pegasus can turn it into a “24-hour monitoring device” that can copy messages, view photos, record conversations, know the location of the user and secretly record the user on video. Spyware has been used to target journalists, human rights activists and politicians in many countries, including Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Panama, Ethiopia, United Arab Emirates and India. India.
In July 2021, The Wire, a New Delhi-based news outlet, reported that “phone numbers for more than 40 Indian journalists appear[ed] on a leaked list of potential targets for surveillance, and forensic testing has confirmed that some of them were successfully spied on by an unidentified agency using Pegasus spyware.”
The Indian government has denied allegations that it used the software illicitly, saying “no unauthorized interception” took place and called the allegations an attempt to slander India’s democracy and its institutions.
In January 2022, the New York Times reported that India and Israel had “agreed on the sale of a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence equipment worth around $2 billion – along with Pegasus and a system missiles as centerpieces”.
Israel’s hacking and surveillance industry is well known. In 2021, companies in Israel’s cyber industry raised $8.8 billion in investments across 100 different deals, according to Israel’s National Cybersecurity Directorate.
According to international non-profit journalism organization Rest of World, private Israeli companies have sold surveillance technology to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Botswana , Nigeria, Angola, Uganda, Ethiopia, Honduras, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago.
Governments and the private sector are collaborating closely in the market for digital surveillance tools, according to a 2019 United Nations report on surveillance and human rights. Governments use surveillance software developed, marketed and supported by private companies. The market itself is “shrouded in secrecy”.
“Surveillance of specific individuals – often journalists, activists, opposition figures, critics and others exercising their right to freedom of expression – has been shown to lead to arbitrary detention, sometimes to torture and possibly extrajudicial executions,” according to the 2019 UN Report.
With regard to Indo-Israeli relations, India did not formally establish diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992. The reasons for the delay in recognition were varied and included the “need to pursue energy and economic security with the Gulf Arab States; the realities of the Cold War and its dependence on the Soviet Union; a perceived prominent role in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM); and the sensitivity of policymakers to its large Muslim constituency coupled with the traditional unwavering support for the Palestinian cause,” wrote NAK Browne, a retired air chief marshal, in India and Israel: building a strategic partnership.
Since then, the two countries have forged close ties. Israel provided military supplies to India during the Kargil war with Pakistan in 1999. But even before India and Israel established diplomatic relations, Israel helped India with ammunition during the wars of the latter with China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. More recently, India used Israeli munitions in an airstrike on Balakot in Pakistan in 2019.
The relationship became particularly strong from 2014, when the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in India. The two countries have since been described as natural allies and strategic partners. Currently, India and Israel cooperate in a range of areas such as agriculture, diamond trade, water conservation, education and tourism, but defense and security are the most important areas. .
It is estimated that defense purchases from Israel amount to more than a billion dollars a year. During the period 2015-2019, India’s arms imports from Israel increased by 175%, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Between 2016 and 2020, India was the second largest arms importer in the world. Israel was India’s third largest arms supplier, behind Russia and France. The countries also support each other in the United Nations and do not criticize each other.
It was not arms sales but India’s acquisition and use of Pegagus spyware that generated political outcry in the country. While Prime Minister Modi has remained silent on the latest allegations, the opposition Indian National Congress says illegal spying using spyware amounts to treason. India’s Supreme Court ordered an investigation into the case, which is still ongoing.
Pegasus spyware has been used to target a dizzying array of individuals, including journalists, serving and retired bureaucrats, ministers, academics, lawyers, students, businessmen and others. Journalists associated with The Wire, The Indian Express, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, India Today and other publications as well as freelance journalists have been targeted. Prominent politicians like Rahul Gandhi of the opposition Indian National Congress party, his aides, election strategist Prashant Kishor, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa, at least two cabinet ministers of Narendra Modi and a woman who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment were all put under surveillance.
Gandhi said his phones were “clearly tapped”. He argued that the use of Pegasus, classified by Israel as a weapon, on Indian citizens constitutes an attack on the country and its institutions. “It’s a betrayal,” he said.
Vijeta Singh, journalist at The Hindu who was also targeted, said: “I didn’t know my phone was being monitored. I had my phone forensically analyzed by The Wire team. They found traces of hacking attempts on my phone.”
The Indian government disputed the allegations, with Home Minister Amit Shah dismissing the Pegasus allegations as an act of “disruptors and obstructors” who wanted to derail India’s progress.
At least 14 opposition political parties demanded a discussion in India’s Parliament in August 2021. A joint party statement called the government “arrogant and stubborn” in its refusal to discuss the issue. The opposition stepped up calls for a parliamentary discussion in January following a New York Times article that confirmed India’s purchase of Pegasus from Israel.
The government insisted that a parliamentary debate was not necessary on the grounds that the case was before the Supreme Court and therefore not subject to public debate.
Prime Minister Modi’s silence through the political storm around Pegasus and India’s so-called ‘Watergate moment’ is remarkable. The Indian government continues to avoid confirming or denying the purchase and use of Pegasus in India. He refused to file a detailed affidavit despite requests from the Supreme Court, blocked questions about it and avoided a discussion in Parliament.
Pegasus was controversial in India even before 2021. In 2019, the messaging service WhatsApp informed the Indian government that the mobile phones of 121 people were being spied on by Pegasus. After questions were posed in the Indian Parliament, “the government resorted to obfuscation in its response, neither confirming nor denying that it purchased Pegasus from its Israeli manufacturer,” wrote Sushant Singh, a journalist whose phone was targeted by Pegasus, in Foreign Policy.