“Mera yahi kehna hai aur iss committee se yahi kehna hai ki aisi kaunsi zaroorat thi aur kiske kehne par humari jo privacy ki right hai – itni jiss tarah se Pegasus ke baare mei media reports ke tehat khabar aayi hai ki jiss tarah se woh humare microphone ko, humari mobile ke camera ko woh poora ek tarah se hack kar leta hai- toh yeh usko kisne power diya? Ye kiske order pe humara phone hack hua?,” (All I have to say to this committee is, what was the need and who authorised the violation of our right to privacy? Through media reports, it is learnt Pegasus can hack our microphone and mobile camera – who gave it the power to do so? On whose orders did it take place?) Journalist Rupesh Kumar Singh asked in his deposition before the expert committee tasked with investigating the government’s alleged use of Pegasus spyware.
Singh and his co-petitioner and wife Ipsha Shatakshi, who deposed together, are among the alleged victims of Pegasus surveillance and had challenged the use of the spyware by the government on several Indian citizens in the Supreme Court. In October last year, the Court issued an order for the constitution of the committee which has since been hearing testimonies from experts and affected parties.
Pegasus is highly-sophisticated spyware that can remotely access the microphone, camera, SMSes, WhatsApp chats, etc., of a device and its use has been challenged by several others in Court on grounds of violation of privacy, being ultra-vires to the Constitution and so on, while seeking surveillance reform and a court-monitored investigation.
Before Pegasus detection, UAPA charges and accusation of being a Maoist
WhenThe Wire’s Kabir Agarwal informed him that his phone may have been the target of surveillance, Singh didn’t suspect anything at first – however, Singh said that he started noticing things being amiss after Agarwal asked him about any suspicious activities on his phone.
“Jab meine unki baat suni aur jab meine gaur kiya, pichle kuch saal- lag bhag do saal- se jo mere phone pe activity ho rahi thi ki iss tarah se toh hota hai lekin mujhe laga tha ki network problems ke karan se ho raha hoga, (When I heard what he said and reflected on my phones’ activities over the last – approximately two-years, I realised there are some suspicious activities happening on it which I had presumed to be due to network issues)” he said.
However, Singh believed that these activities actually started in late 2017.
Reportage on fake encounter in Jharkhand may have triggered surveillance: “Iss report ke karne ke baad mei- jab mai yaad kar raha tha toh mujhe laga – ki mere aur meri life partner aur inki behn ke phone mei ye problem shuru hua that, (When I thought about the report, I realised that it was my phone, my wife’s phone, and her sister’s phone that had been hacked)” he said in his deposition, referring to a 2017 report he filed on the fake encounter of a local in Jharkhand- which was incidentally published in The Wire. The report exposed that Jharkhand police were trying to falsely take credit for killing a Maoist with a Rs 15 lakh bounty on his head in an encounter, when the person was actually a local Adivasi (aboriginal) labourer, Singh said. This sparked a huge movement in Jharkhand; Opposition leaders called it a ‘fake encounter’ and raised the issue in the state assembly as well as in both houses of parliament while a Central Investigation Department (CID) enquiry was also instituted on the matter, he added.
IB officers revealed phone was tapped during 2019 arrest: Further, in 2019, Singh was arrested by plain-clothed IB officers and charged with multiple counts under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and accused of being a Maoist himself. He said that during his time in custody (six months), IB officers told him that his phone was tapped because of his reportage on Maoists. Incidentally, that phone tapping was what led to his arrest that year, they told him.
What were the signs of the spyware?
After Agarwal asked him about it, Singh said that he noticed his phones’ battery draining very quickly, mobile data packs getting exhausted quickly, and even heard a beeping sound in the background during calls.
Gradually frequency of beeping sounds during calls increased: “Mere phone mei ye lagataar- mere hi nahi mere partner ke or inke behn ke phone mei bhi- ye problems aati thi ki jab hum phone kisi ko karte the ya phone aata tha toh beep beep ki awaaz aati thi (Constantly my phone had this problem – in fact, not just my phone but even my partner’s and her sister’s – that every time we would call someone or receive a call, there would be a beeping sound in the background),” Singh said. While this used to happen in 20-30% of the calls initially, it gradually increased to 50%, then 60% and by the end, 70-80% of calls were accompanied by a beeping sound, he added.
Phone battery life was inconsistent: “Mera battery boht zyaada consume karta tha. Battery jo hai woh full charge hota tha, kabhi kabhi woh 24 hours chal jaata tha aur kabhi kabhi woh 2-3 ghante mei khatam ho jata tha,” (My battery would get consumed a lot. If it was fully charged, somedays it would run for 24 hours while on other days it would get run down in 2-3 hours), Singh said.
2GB data packs would halve very quickly: “Mera daily 2GB ka plan tha- mere ghar mei WiFi toh hai nahi- usme toh kabhi kabhi boht saara cheez dekh lete the, kaam kar lete the, aur kabhi kabhi automatically hi woh kehta tha 50% aapka data loss ho gaya hai. Toh yeh saari gadbadi humare phone mei shuru ho chuki thi,” (I had a 2GB data plan – we don’t have WiFi at home – sometimes we could watch a lot on it, do a lot of work, while other times it would automatically say 50% data has been consumed. So, all these problems were happening on my phone), Singh said.
Shatakshi’s phone also showed signs that something was wrong
Frequently received WhatsApp calls from unknown numbers: In her deposition, Shatakshi said that she had received several calls from unknown numbers on WhatsApp since March 2018. While she did not pick up any of the calls, she accidentally received one but disconnected the call quickly. She even posted on Facebook, showing screenshots of the numbers she received a call from, in 2019 after WhatsApp reportedly warned certain users about their accounts having been compromised by Pegasus. She further revealed those three phone numbers to the committee which began with a ‘+31’ code and added that here were several other numbers as well.
Singh said that he also received such missed calls, but did not answer them because he either wasn’t always connected to the Internet or didn’t pay much attention to the calls.
Mysterious beeping sound while the phone was idle: During Singh’s imprisonment in 2019, Shatakshi said that on multiple occasions, her phone produced a loud beep even though it was lying idle, alone. Her sister’s phone also similarly produced a loud beep while lying idle.
Questions from the committee
The committee asked the two journalists if they had been notified by WhatsApp about their accounts having been compromised, if they had ever clicked on a phishing link, and specific details about the infected devices.
1. If either of the two received any intimation from WhatsApp?
No, responded Singh to the question posed by committee member Dr. Sundeep Oberoi.
2. If either of the two received any message with a link that promised a reward if they clicked on it?
Singh: While he did receive texts with links promising cash prizes if he clicked on it, Singh said that as far as he remembers he has not clicked on any such links.
Shatakshi: Similarly, Shatakshi also said that she does not remember clicking on any such links; however, since her younger son watches cartoons on her phone, she said that she cannot be sure that he did not click on them.
3. If the two of them have submitted their phones for technical analysis and if yes which ones?
Our phones have been submitted to our advocate for technical analysis, Singh said in response to a question by Oberoi. His advocate-on-record Prateek Chaddha interjected to confirm that he has received their devices and would be submitting them before the committee.
One of these phones was a smartphone Singh had been using since 2018 while the other was in use since 2017, he said. (It was not mentioned who these phones belonged to, between the three of them).
4. Centre or State? Who could have conducted the surveillance?
Centre, Singh said in response to a question by Dr. Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, adding that this was because targets named are from across the country which the Jharkhand government may not have been able to target. Further, he was also the only name from Jharkhand.
In response to questions by Dr Prabhakaran and Dr. Chaudhary, Singh and Shatakshi revealed more details about the infected phones:
- Models of the phones submitted for analysis: One is a Galaxy On5 Pro and Galaxy On8, Singh said.
- All in all three phones may have been impacted: Singh said that an older feature phone (Nokia) of his, which he has been using since 2015, was infected. When asked if beeping sounds were observed in regards to the feature phone or smartphone, Shatakshi said that her sister and herself were both using smartphones during the hacking.
- Jio was the telecom service provider: Jio was the carrier or TSP on his phone at the time of the hacking, Singh said.
What is the scope and powers of the expert committee?
The expert committee of the Supreme Court consists of :
- Justice RV Ravindran, who will oversee its functioning
- Alok Joshi, former IPS officer
- Dr Sundeep Oberoi, Chairman, Sub Committee of International Organisation of Standardisation of International Electro-Technical Commission
It also has three technical members:
- Dr Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, National Forensic Science University
- Dr Prabhakaran from Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Kerala
- Dr Ashwini Anil Gupte
What is the Committee authorised to do?
Further, the Supreme Court has asked the expert committee to:
- Devise its own procedure to effectively implement and answer the Terms of Reference.
- Hold such enquiry or investigation as it deems fit.
- Take statements of any person in connection with the enquiry and call for the records of any authority or individual.
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