India investigates Apple alert on ‘state-sponsored attackers’ after politicians claim phone hacking attempt

Top India opposition politicians accuse Modi government of ‘spying’

Shweta Sharma
Tuesday 31 October 2023 12:58 GMT
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<p>Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the inaugural ceremony of the 7th edition of the India Mobile Congress (IMC) in New Delhi</p>

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the inaugural ceremony of the 7th edition of the India Mobile Congress (IMC) in New Delhi

The Indian government has launched an investigation into mobile phone alerts reportedly sent by Apple that warn several of the country’s opposition politicians against “state-sponsored attackers”.

The alerts on the phones of a dozen of India’s top politicians have triggered a row between the ruling Narendra Modi-led Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government and opposition parties ahead of elections.

Ashwini Vaishnaw, India’s federal minister for communications and information technology, said the government will get to the bottom of the allegations as it takes such matters “seriously”.

A major controversy erupted between the ruling BJP and opposition parties after several prominent politicians raised an alarm over automated messages that flashed on their iPhones.

The politicians have accused the federal government of trying to hack into their devices and spying on them.

The message by the American technology giant read: “If your device is compromised by a state-sponsored attacker, they may be able to remotely access your sensitive data, communications, or even the camera and microphone.”

“While it’s possible this is a false alarm, please take this warning seriously,” said the alert, according to the screenshots shared by the politicians on X/Twitter.

Among the politicians who received the alert are opposition members who have been the ruling BJP’s most stringent critics. These include Mahua Moitra of the Trinamool Congress, lawmaker Asaduddin Owaisi, and the Congress party’s Shashi Tharoor, Pawan Khera, and Supriya Shrinate.

Holding a press conference, opposition politician Rahul Gandhi accused Mr Modi’s government of hacking into senior opposition politicians’ mobile phones, saying this was the “work of criminals and thieves”.

“This is clearly a sign of panic,” Mr Gandhi said. “This is not one person, this is the whole opposition.”

Mr Vaishnaw said the government has asked Apple to join its investigation into the matter. It has attacked the opposition parties, blaming them as their “compulsive critics in the country”.

“Apple states these notifications may be based on information which is ‘incomplete or imperfect’. It also states that some Apple threat notifications maybe false alarms or some attacks are not detected,” he said.

The tech giant has shared its own statement amid the row.

“Apple does not attribute the threat notifications to any specific state-sponsored attacker. State-sponsored attackers are very well-funded and sophisticated, and their attacks evolve over time,” Apple said.

“Detecting such attacks relies on threat intelligence signals that are often imperfect and incomplete.”

In a statement to The Independent, an Apple spokesperson said it has sent “Threat Notifications” to individuals whose accounts are in nearly 150 countries. But did not confirm if they were approached by Indian government officials.

Jairam Ramesh, a spokesperson for Gandhi’s Congress party, called Apple’s clarification a “long-winded non-denial” of a security breach.

Indian politicians and political commentators shared screenshots of Apple alerts on X.

Raghav Chadha, a lawmaker from the opposition Aam Aadmi Party, said he had received the alert and said the message comes just months before India’s national elections.

“It must also be placed within the broader attacks on the opposition who are facing relentless repression by investigatory agencies, politically motivated criminal cases and incarceration,” he said.

Priyanka Chaturvedi, a member of the Shiv Sena party faction that opposes the government, also said she received the message.

“Funny that only opposition got the memo of surveillance, even the algorithm was selective in its choice!” Ms Chaturvedi said.

This is not the first time the ruling BJP government has been accused of spying.

In 2021, India was rocked by reports that the government had employed the Pegasus spyware to allegedly spy on numerous journalists, activists and politicians, including Mr Gandhi.

In 2019, WhatsApp alleged in a lawsuit that Pegasus, a surveillance software developed by the Israeli company NSO Group, had been used to target Indian journalists and activists.

NSO Group has maintained that it exclusively collaborates with government agencies.

The government has refrained from responding to inquiries regarding the acquisition of Pegasus spyware by India or any of its state agencies for surveillance purposes.

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