The Israeli spyware Pegasus and a missile system were the "centerpieces" of a roughly USD 2 billion deal of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear between India and Israel in 2017, according to a report in The New York Times.
A massive controversy erupted last year when the NSO Group hit the headlines with the alleged use of its Pegasus software by some governments to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, politicians and others in a number of countries, including India, triggered concerns over issues relating to privacy.
The NYT, in a report titled The Battle for the World's Most Powerful Cyberweapon, said that the Israeli firm NSO Group had for nearly a decade been “selling its surveillance software on a subscription basis to law-enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world, promising that it could do what no one else -- not a private company, not even a state intelligence service -- could do: consistently and reliably crack the encrypted communications of any iPhone or Android smartphone."
The report also referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Israel in July 2017 - to become the first Indian prime minister to visit the country.
"For decades, India had maintained a policy of what it called “commitment to the Palestinian cause," and relations with Israel were frosty. The Modi visit, however, was notably cordial, complete with a carefully staged moment of him and (then Israeli) Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu walking together barefoot on a local beach," it said.
"They had reason for the warm feelings. Their countries had agreed on the sale of a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear worth roughly USD 2 billion -- with Pegasus and a missile system as the centerpieces.
"Months later, Netanyahu made a rare state visit to India. And in June 2019, India voted in support of Israel at the UN's Economic and Social Council to deny observer status to a Palestinian human rights organisation, a first for the nation," the report said.
Last year, a row erupted over Israeli spyware Pegasus allegedly being used for targeted surveillance in India.
The government, however, dismissed allegations of any kind of surveillance on its part on specific people, saying it "has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever".
In October last year, the Supreme Court set up a 3-member independent expert panel to probe the alleged use of Israeli spyware Pegasus for targeted surveillance in India, observing the state cannot get a "free pass" every time the spectre of national security is raised and that its mere invocation cannot render the judiciary a "mute spectator" and be the bugbear it shies away from. The NYT report said that the FBI too had bought a version of Pegasus, “NSO's premier spying tool.”
It was around last summer that the FBI “decided not to deploy the NSO weapons. It was around this time that a consortium of news organisations called Forbidden Stories brought forward new revelations about NSO cyberweapons and their use against journalists and political dissidents. The Pegasus system currently lies dormant at the facility in New Jersey.”
An international investigative consortium had claimed that many Indian ministers, politicians, activists, businessmen and journalists were potentially targeted by the NSO Group's phone hacking software.
The report said that since 2011 when NSO “introduced” Pegasus to the global market, it had "helped Mexican authorities capture Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug lord known as El Chapo".
European investigators have quietly used Pegasus to thwart terrorist plots, fight organised crime and, in one case, take down a global child-abuse ring, identifying dozens of suspects in more than 40 countries, it said.
"In a broader sense, NSO's products seemed to solve one of the biggest problems facing law-enforcement and intelligence agencies in the 21st century: that criminals and terrorists had better technology for encrypting their communications than investigators had to decrypt them. The criminal world had gone dark even as it was increasingly going global," according to the report.
However, over the years, "the many abuses of Pegasus had also been well documented”.
"Mexico deployed the software not just against gangsters but also against journalists and political dissidents. The United Arab Emirates used the software to hack the phone of a civil rights activist whom the government threw in jail.
"Saudi Arabia used it against women's rights activists and, according to a lawsuit filed by a Saudi dissident, to spy on communications with Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, whom Saudi operatives killed and dismembered in Istanbul in 2018," the NYT report said.
The report said that its yearlong investigation, which included interviews with government officials, leaders of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, cyberweapons experts, business executives and privacy activists in a dozen countries, “shows how Israel's ability to approve or deny access to NSO's cyberweapons has become entangled with its diplomacy”.
“Countries like Mexico and Panama have shifted their positions toward Israel in key votes at the United Nations after winning access to Pegasus,” the report added.
Amidst a raging controversy worldwide, Israel established a committee in July to review the allegations of misuse of the NSO group's surveillance software and hinted at a possible "review of the whole matter of giving licences".
NSO's then chief executive, Shalev Hulio, had then welcomed the move saying would be "very pleased if there were an investigation so that we'd be able to clear our name”.
Hulio also claimed that there was an effort “to smear the whole Israeli cyber industry".
Israel, in November last year, distanced itself from the controversy triggered by the NSO Group after the US blacklisted the technology firm, which had developed the Pegasus spyware that was allegedly used to target government officials, activists and journalists globally, saying that it is a private company and it has nothing to do with the policies of the Israeli government.
The US sanctioned the Herzliya-based company over alleged misuse of its phone-hacking spyware in countries across the world, including in India.