Phones used by industrialist Anil Ambani, former CBI Director Alok Verma, and two other senior officers at the agency — former special director Rakesh Asthana and former additional director A K Sharma — were potential targets of surveillance using the Pegasus spyware, according to a report published by The Wire Thursday.
The Wire is one of 16 media organisations around the world who are partnering with the French nonprofit Forbidden Stories and human rights group Amnesty International in a global investigative project centred on a database of numbers that may have been targeted with the spyware.
The list also includes numbers of Anil Ambani’s employee Tony Jesudan, and the French company Dassault Aviation’s India representative Venkata Rao Posina, The Wire said. Members of Alok Verma’s family too are on the list, it said.
According to the report, the numbers of Ambani and his employee entered the list in 2018, when a legal challenge had been mounted in the Supreme Court about the Indian government’s deal with Dassault to purchase the Rafale jets.
“…The number for Dassault Aviation’s representative in India, Venkata Rao Posina, former Saab India head Inderjit Sial and Boeing India boss Pratyush Kumar all appear in the leaked database at different periods of time in 2018 and 2019…,” The Wire said.
Verma’s phone number appeared on the list in October 2018, when CBI was mired in an ugly turf war among officials, and Verma, the Director of the agency, had registered an FIR against his deputy Rakesh Asthana, The Wire said. Both officers were divested of their duties on October 23 that year.
This was also the time when the phone numbers of Asthana and A K Sharma were put on the list. Sharma, who was then Additional Director and was said to be part of Verma’s faction, too had been transferred to an insignificant department in the agency in the aftermath of the controversy.
The Wire has claimed that the numbers were put on the list hours after the developments of October 23.
“Along with Verma, the personal telephone numbers of his wife, daughter and son-in-law would eventually get placed on the list too, making it a total of 8 numbers from this one family,” The Wire said.
These numbers were taken off the list in a few months’ time, the portal said.
“By the second week of February 2019, by which time Verma had finally retired from government service, this entire cluster of persons ceased being of interest to the government agency which had added them to the list,” The Wire said.
The case against Asthana was eventually closed by the CBI, which said there was no evidence to support the allegations.
Verma and Asthana were unavailable for comment. Sharma said, “I am travelling and haven’t read these reports.”
The Pegasus Project media partners have said that “only the technical examination of a phone’s data can establish whether an attempt to hack, or a successful compromise, took place; but the presence of a number on the list is a clear indication that the person had been identified as a possible candidate for surveillance.”