Several prominent Indian journalists whose reporting was critical of the government and its allies were recently targeted with Pegasus spyware that could hack into their iPhones, an Amnesty International analysis found.
Shortly after Apple notified the users in October that they may have been victims of a state-sponsored attack, government officials under Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Apple’s representatives and demanded they soften the political blowback from the warnings, The Washington Post reported.
It’s the latest example of the Modi government exerting political pressure on foreign businesses whose actions run counter to the interests of New Delhi.
Apple’s India dilemma
Allegations that the government or its allies targeted critics on Apple devices puts the tech giant in an uncomfortable position in a country where it is actively expanding. Bloomberg declared Apple’s big bet on India was one of the “winners” of 2023 in the country, as manufacturers Foxconn and Tata Group plan to scale up local production. Apple reportedly hopes to make a quarter of all iPhones in India, a signal that Apple’s years-long “geopolitical pivot … is really underway” as it reduces its dependence on China, a CNBC tech correspondent said.
Government’s ‘routine’ crackdown of criticism
While the Modi government has never confirmed or denied using spyware, its “attempts to silence criticism have become a routine affair,” an Indian journalist wrote in The Diplomat earlier this year. The government raided the BBC’s offices in India on tax evasion allegations after the broadcaster published a documentary critical of Modi. And under pressure from Modi’s party, Facebook failed to properly moderate propaganda and hate speech that benefited the party, the Post reported in September.
Pegasus hacks spark global finger-pointing
The Pegasus spyware in the India attacks has been used by several governments around the world to spy on journalists and activists, and can remotely infect someone’s iPhone without the user taking any action, investigations have found. The Israeli company that makes Pegasus, NSO Group, has claimed that it only sells to governments that agree to use the software to fight crime and terrorism. Hacks have led to cross-border finger-pointing, including when a prominent Russian journalist was targeted while in Germany and a handful of nations emerged as possible suspects. “Apparently, because this stupid technology exists, and because there is not much willingness on an international level to regulate it, we can’t,” a German member of the European parliament said.