Apple warns of Pegasus-like spyware attack

Iltija Mufti, and Pushparaj Deshpande, were among the recipients of these alerts, according to media reports

The Apple notifications alert users who may have been targeted by sophisticated spyware (photo: IANS)
The Apple notifications alert users who may have been targeted by sophisticated spyware (photo: IANS)

NH Digital

A Pegasus-like spyware attack targeting their iPhones is back in the news after at least two Indian citizens received alerts from Apple Inc. warning them about the same.

The alerts received on the night of 9 July, warned recipients describing a "mercenary" attack, highlighting the ability of the spyware to access personal devices, read messages, view photos, and use the microphone and camera in real time.

Iltija Mufti, political adviser and daughter of former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, and Pushparaj Deshpande, founder of the Samruddha Bharat Foundation, were among the recipients of these alerts. Both individuals told The Hindu that their phones had been updated and would soon undergo forensic analysis.

Media reports said Apple’s India spokesperson did not provide an immediate comment on the alerts. The alerts did not explicitly state that the attacks were state-sponsored but mentioned Pegasus spyware as an example. Pegasus, created by the Israeli firm NSO Group Technologies, is sold exclusively to governments.

The Indian government has neither confirmed nor denied its purchase or use of Pegasus and has abstained from participating in a Supreme Court-ordered probe into the matter.

This is the first time such spyware alerts have been reported in months. The last known instance was in October, when the founding editor of Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan, and the South Asia Editor at the Organised Crime and Corruption Report Project, Anand Mangnale, received similar alerts.

Subsequent forensic analysis indicated they were targeted using a Pegasus vulnerability. Mufti and Deshpande have both blamed the Union government for the spyware attack.

Mufti expressed her views on X, formerly known as Twitter, stating, “BJP shamelessly snoops on women only because we refuse to toe their line.”

Deshpande added, “Countless problems facing India which GoI should be redressing. Instead, it’s more focused on deploying #Pegasus to scare & suppress.”

In 2021, the Forbidden Stories collective, in an international investigation, uncovered the widespread targeting of civil society groups, opposition politicians, and journalists by Pegasus spyware. The Indian government denied any illegal activity but did not confirm or deny the deployment of Pegasus.

High-profile individuals allegedly targeted in 2021 include Rahul Gandhi, current Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa, student activist Umar Khalid, Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, members of the Dalai Lama’s entourage, and activists involved in the Bhima Koregaon violence of 2018, such as Stan Swamy, Shoma Sen, and Rona Wilson.

In October 2023 of the previous year, Apple had issued threat notifications to several Opposition leaders across different parties, including Congress’s Shashi Tharoor, AAP’s Raghav Chadha, and TMC’s Mahua Moitra, cautioning them about potential state-sponsored spyware attacks on their devices.

In April 2024, Apple revised its threat notification policy, removing references to “potential state-sponsored spyware” and instead attributing such attacks to “mercenary spyware.”

According to Apple, these sophisticated and costly attacks, like those involving Pegasus from NSO Group, target a very small number of individuals but are global and ongoing.

Since Apple began issuing threat notifications in 2021, individuals in 150 countries have received them. In India, at least 20 iPhone users were notified last year.

Past investigations into unauthorised surveillance using Pegasus have seen limited success. In 2021, the Supreme Court established a committee of technical experts to investigate, but conclusive results are still pending.

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