The names of more businessmen and bureaucrats have appeared as potential targets of snooping by the Israeli spyware Pegasus, revealed in a leaked global database. Names that have surfaced include Naresh Goyal, founder chairman of Jet Airways; BC Tripathi, ex-chief of GAIL India; Ajay Singh, SpiceJet chairman and managing director, and Essar Group’s Prashant Ruia, The Wire reported.
Naresh Goyal, according to the report, became a target of the NSO Group’s Pegasus project after Jet Airways landed in deep financial crisis with two-thirds of its fleet grounded in 2018. Following this, in 2019, Goyal stepped down from the Board of Jet Airways along with his wife Anita Goyal.
The same year, Goyal was questioned by the Enforcement Directorate for investigating charges of foreign exchange violation against him. He was subsequently detained and questioned for money laundering by the ED in 2020.
The list also includes businessmen Vikram Kothari of Rotomac Pens, his son Rahul Kothari, and former Aircel promoter C Sivasankaran. They have come under the government scanner in the past for alleged loan frauds.
Contact details of former chief of Life Insurance Corporation of India and a former executive director of the Gujarat Narmada Valley Fertiliser Corporation have also been identified as possible targets of the spyware.
Some officers of Adani Group, Essar group, and a former SpiceJet official also featured in the list. These officials, according to the report, were “engaged with thorny policy issues that affect their companies.”
Former Aircel promoter C Sivasankaran featured on the list shortly before he faced CBI investigation in connection with an alleged multi-crore loan fraud at IDBI Bank in 2018. The case pertains to loans of Rs 322 crore and Rs 523 crore given to the companies of Sivasankaran. The loans later turned non-performing assets.
V Balasubramaniam, former Reliance Industries group president, and AN Sethuraman of Reliance ADA Group were also targeted, according to the report. Both the officials have been charged with violating the Official Secrets Act.
Corporate executives from companies such as Franklin Templeton, DSP BlackRock and Motilal Oswal were also potential targets.
Earlier, The Wire had reported that Rajeshwar Singh, a senior Enforcement Directorate officer who led several high-profile investigations, was targeted by the global spyware.
Meanwhile, NSO has said it will “no longer be responding to media inquiries on this matter” and “will not play along with the vicious and slanderous campaign”.
In a statement titled ‘Enough is Enough’, the NSO Group said, “The list is not a list of targets or potential targets of Pegasus. The numbers in the list are not related to NSO group. Any claim that a name in the list is necessarily related to a Pegasus target or Pegasus potential target is erroneous and false. NSO is a technology company. We do not operate the system, nor do we have access to the data of our customers, yet they are obligated to provide us with such information under investigations. NSO will thoroughly investigate any credible proof of misuse of its technologies, as we always had, and will shut down the system where necessary.”
In India, at least 300 people are believed to have been targeted, including two serving Ministers in the Narendra Modi government, three Opposition leaders, one constitutional authority, several journalists and business persons. The numbers of Union Minister Prahlad Singh Patel and Railways & IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw are among the 300 “verified” Indian mobile numbers in the list investigated by the global project.
In the wake of a massive uproar over the issue by Opposition parties, the government has denied allegations that the Pegasus spyware was being used to snoop on politicians, journalists and a constitutional authority. It has also called the report “sensational”, and an attempt “to malign Indian democracy and its well established institutions”.