Indian opposition figures receive threat notice from Apple | ET REALITY


More than a dozen iPhones across India issued the same message earlier this week. Each notification sounded its own little alarm, but was amplified many times over when the targets were publicly identified. Most were prominent political opponents of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.

The warning on its phones, sent by Apple on Monday, seemed stark: “State-sponsored attackers may be targeting your iPhone,” it read in part. But these so-called threat notifications could, by Apple’s own admission, be a false alarm, and the Modi government dismissed accusations that it was spying on the opposition, journalists and critics, as some speculated.

Now in power for almost a decade, Modi and his government have consolidated their power by stifling free speech, undermining the independent press and silencing dissenting voices, including those of the opposition. This week’s episode seemed to fit that pattern for its critics and for many of those who received Apple’s warning. And, they said, the vigilance suggested by the alert would help the ruling party gain an advantage over its rivals before next year’s elections.

Rahul Gandhi, the main opposition leader, said many of his confidants in the Congress Party had received the notification. Gandhi added that he takes illegal surveillance by the government for granted. At a press conference, he said: “We are not afraid. “You can do as many wiretaps as you want, I don’t care.” This fight is a distraction, he said, from the government’s more serious failings, such as corruption.

Ashwini Vaishnaw, India’s communications, electronics and IT minister, dismissed the spying allegations as complaints from “compulsive critics,” making clear that she was referring to Gandhi in particular. He also called it a distraction and added that the government would investigate the matter even as he urged the public to ignore the “vague” notifications.

But Sriram Karri, editor of a newspaper in the southern city of Hyderabad, said this was the fourth such alert he had received in two years. This time, he said, “he got scared” and feared “very political” motives.

“You feel violated because not only your calls, but someone has access to all the data on your phone, including photos and videos,” Karri said.

Apple began sending threat notifications in 2019, after widespread use of Pegasus, a spyware program developed by NSO, an Israeli cyber intelligence company, became public. NSO’s clients included governments around the world that used Pegasus to infiltrate the phones of dissidents and opponents. One of those clients, The Times reported last year, was India. Pegasus was a centerpiece of a $2 billion defense package it purchased from Israel in 2017.

Some independent researchers in India have reported evidence of Pegasus infections on their phones. A committee formed by India’s Supreme Court to investigate those reports was dissolved last year, noting that “the government of India has not cooperated.”

Human rights group Amnesty International played a crucial role in uncovering the global scale of Pegasus spyware. In a statement, Likhita Banerji, a technology and human rights researcher at the group, said the cause of Apple’s notifications “appears to be yet another surveillance scandal.” She added: “In India, reports of prominent journalists and opposition leaders receiving notifications from Apple are particularly worrying in the months leading up to state and national general elections.”

On Tuesday, Apple confirmed it was the source of the alerts in India. But their public statements, like those of the Indian government, had the effect of minimizing the impact of the warnings. The notifications were based on “intelligence signals that are often imperfect and incomplete,” the company said, adding: “It is possible that some threat notifications from Apple are false alarms.” And they must remain vague to avoid helping “state-sponsored attackers adapt their behavior to evade detection in the future.”

The company also said it has sent these notifications in nearly 150 countries since it began alerting potential victims.

For Mishi Choudhary, a lawyer who started an organization in India defend the rights of Internet users and software developers, the episode stood out because apparently only opposition figures received it. “This was no ordinary security breach,” he said.

In recent years, Apple has established a high-risk position in India as the country’s economy has grown to become the fifth largest in the world. It has entered more strongly into the Indian consumer market, opening Apple stores and challenging the dominance of the Android platform.

At the same time, Apple has become more important to the Indian government. It is by far the most prominent company to join a government campaign to increase manufacturing in the country. India’s Tata Sons and Taiwan’s Foxconn have bought and built factories that are increasingly producing high-end iPhones at the same time Apple is eager to reduce its dependence on China as a manufacturing hub.

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