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“Vague” iPhone Alert Sets Off Serious Spying Accusations in India

Vague iPhone Alert Sets Off Serious Spying Accusations in India

A cryptic iPhone notification in India has sparked serious allegations of clandestine surveillance. The alerts implied that numerous opposition figures could potentially be subjects of “state-sponsored” scrutiny, though Apple itself acknowledged the possibility of a misjudgment.

Many iPhones across India chimed in unison with a peculiar message earlier this week, each notification ringing with its distinct tone. However, when the individuals it targeted publicly acknowledged it, the resonance amplified significantly. Most recipients were prominent political adversaries of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.

The message on their iPhones, dispatched by Apple on Monday, bore a dire warning: “Your iPhone may be in the crosshairs of state-sponsored hackers.” Nevertheless, even Apple conceded that these so-called threat alerts might amount to a false alarm. The Modi government swiftly denied allegations of espionage against opposition members, journalists, and critics, despite rampant speculation.

Having wielded power for nearly a decade, Mr. Modi and his administration have solidified their authority by clamping down on free expression, undermining the autonomy of the press, and stifling dissenting voices, particularly within the opposition. For many, this episode seemed to fit seamlessly into that established pattern, as they believed the surveillance implied by the notification could give the ruling party an edge in the upcoming election.

Rahul Gandhi, the primary opposition leader, reported that many of his associates in the Congress Party received the notification. Mr. Gandhi appeared nonchalant about the government’s unlawful surveillance, stating at a press conference, “We harbor no fear. You may indulge in as much phone tapping as you wish; it doesn’t perturb me.” He deemed this quarrel a diversion from the government’s most critical deficiencies, such as corruption.

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Ashwini Vaishnaw, India’s Minister of Communications, Electronics, and Information Technology, dismissed the spying allegations as the grievances of “compulsive critics,” a veiled reference to Mr. Gandhi. He, too, characterized it as a distraction, concurrently urging the public to disregard the “ambiguous” notifications.

Sriram Karri, a newspaper editor in the southern city of Hyderabad, revealed that this was the fourth such alert he had received within two years. This time, he confessed to feeling disconcerted, suspecting the involvement of “highly political” motives.

“One feels violated, as though not only your calls but also your entire phone’s data, including photos and videos, are at someone else’s disposal,” Mr. Karri lamented.

Apple commenced sending these threat alerts in 2019, following the widespread use of Pegasus, a spyware program developed by NSO, an Israeli cyber-intelligence firm that was disclosed publicly. NSO’s clients included governments worldwide, using Pegasus to infiltrate the phones of dissidents and adversaries. India was reported to be one of those clients, as revealed by The Times last year. Pegasus formed the linchpin of a $2 billion defense acquisition from Israel in 2017.

Some independent researchers in India have provided evidence of Pegasus infections on their phones. A committee convened by India’s Supreme Court to investigate these claims disbanded last year, noting that “the government of India had not cooperated.”

Amnesty International, a human rights organization, played a pivotal role in revealing the global scale of Pegasus spyware. Likhita Banerji, a technology and human rights researcher at the organization, maintained that the origin of Apple’s notifications “seems to be yet another surveillance scandal.” She added, “In India, reports of eminent journalists and opposition leaders receiving the Apple notifications are particularly disconcerting in the months leading up to state and national general elections.”

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On Tuesday, Apple confirmed that it was the source of the alerts in India. However, its public statements, much like those of the Indian government, downplayed the impact of the warnings. The company explained that the notifications were based on “incomplete and often imperfect intelligence signals,” further acknowledging the possibility of false alarms. The notifications had to remain cryptic to prevent “state-sponsored attackers from adapting their tactics to avoid detection in the future.”

Apple also disclosed that it had dispatched these notifications to nearly 150 countries since the inception of the alert system.

For Mishi Choudhary, a legal advocate who founded an organization in India dedicated to safeguarding the rights of internet users and software developers, this incident stood out due to its exclusive targeting of opposition figures. “This was not your typical security breach,” she remarked.

In recent years, Apple has assumed a pivotal position in India as the nation’s economy ascended to become the world’s fifth-largest. The company has intensified its presence in India’s consumer market, establishing Apple Stores and challenging the dominance of the Android platform.

Simultaneously, Apple has become increasingly vital to the Indian government. It stands as the most prominent company to have joined a government-led initiative to bolster manufacturing in the country. India’s Tata Sons and Taiwan’s Foxconn have acquired and constructed factories churning out a growing number of high-end iPhones. This development coincides with Apple’s eagerness to reduce its reliance on China as a manufacturing hub.

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