November 2, 2023
BENGALURU – India’s Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw called tech giant Apple’s warnings of possible state-sponsored cyber attacks on some senior opposition politicians’ mobile phones “vague”, but targeted leaders blamed the ruling party for snooping on their phones and computers.
On Tuesday, Apple warned at least 20 of India’s prominent opposition leaders and journalists that their iPhones might be targets of state-sponsored hacking attempts. The company sent messages to those likely hit with the subject “ALERT: State-sponsored attackers may be targeting your iPhone”, warning that it believed “new or continued targeting has occurred”.
The flurry of alerts has raised questions about whether the Indian government has deepened electronic surveillance of critics and political rivals ahead of national elections in 2024.
So far, a dozen opposition politicians have confirmed they received the message from Apple, and many posted screenshots of it on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. They include parliamentarians from opposition parties such as Mr Shashi Tharoor from Congress, Ms Mahua Moitra from Trinamool Congress, Mr Raghav Chadha from the Aam Aadmi Party, and Mr Asaduddin Owaisi from the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party.
“These attackers are likely targeting you individually because of who you are or what you do. If your device is compromised by a state-sponsored attacker, they may be able to remotely access your sensitive data, communications, or even the camera and microphone,” the Apple alerts said, but did not specify who the attacker could be.
“While it’s possible this is a false alarm, please take this warning seriously,” the message added.
Mr Vaishnaw said the government was concerned, but that “the information by Apple on this issue seems vague and non-specific in nature”. He noted it could be a possible false alarm.
The government would investigate “to get to the bottom of these notifications”, he added, inviting Apple to “join the investigation with real, accurate information on the alleged state-sponsored attacks”.
Others who confirmed they had received such alerts were Congress spokespersons Pawan Khera and Supriya Shrinate, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, and Telangana state minister K.T. Rama Rao from the Bharat Rashtra Samithi party.
Trinamool Congress’ Ms Moitra told The Straits Times: “It is absolutely shameful that what’s supposed to be a great democracy has been reduced to a Peeping Tom state.”
The former investment banker and parliamentarian from the eastern state of West Bengal has led the opposition’s charge on Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his alleged dealings with billionaire Gautam Adani, one of Asia’s richest men.
She said vocal opposition leaders like her were living in “a complete Orwellian reality”, referring to being constantly watched, and having their privacy and security violated by electronic surveillance.
In 2021, a collaborative global investigation revealed that several government agencies worldwide, including in India, were using Pegasus – a spyware made by Israel’s cyber-intelligence company NSO Group – to snoop on journalists, activists, opposition politicians like Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, and even former bureaucrats who headed the election commission and investigation bureaus.
The government denied the allegations, and did not cooperate with a Supreme Court-appointed expert committee’s investigation, which made it inconclusive to determine the use of Pegasus.
Ms Moitra wished Mr Vaishnaw “good luck” on probing the current allegations of surveillance. “The Minister of Information Technology will have to go ask the Home Minister why he’s snooping on the opposition,” she said.
Mr Gandhi said several people who work in his office had also received the alert. “Snooping of opposition leaders… is clearly a sign of (the ruling party’s) panic,” he said at a press conference in New Delhi on Tuesday.
Some senior journalists and researchers also received Apple’s notifications, including Mr Siddharth Varadarajan, founder of digital news portal The Wire; Mr Sriram Karri, resident editor of Deccan Chronicle; India-based reporters from the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a global network of investigative journalists; and Mr Samir Saran, head of the Observer Research Foundation, a government-linked New Delhi think-tank.
While Apple’s alerts did not specify which government sponsored the attacks, Mr Varadarajan from The Wire, which was also involved in the 2021 Pegasus investigations, said that “based on the list of targets – top-drawer opposition leaders, journalists, and the interest in Telangana state that is going to the polls – it is hard to imagine which other state would have an interest in spending millions of dollars to compromise these phones”.
Telangana will be electing a new state government in late November.
Mr Varadarajan added that being under possible surveillance, he has learnt “not to discuss sensitive stories on the phone, or even with the phone around”.
The Apple alerts say the state-sponsored attackers are “very well funded and sophisticated”, and their attacks are constantly evolving.
Apple urged the users to protect their security, data and privacy by keeping their device software updated, enlist cyber-attack experts for assistance, and enable “lockdown mode” that the e-mails say was “specifically designed to help protect users who are individually targeted by some of the most advanced digital threats”.
Posting on X, Mr Apar Gupta, director of digital rights advocacy organisation Internet Freedom Foundation, said: “The issue strikes at the heart of Indian democracy.” He added that “public cynicism or judicial stupor” should not stop Indians from demanding an independent, transparent technical analysis and disclosures from the Indian government regarding its spyware purchases and uses.