Indian defence agency bought spyware from Pegasus ‘rival’, trade data reveals

The spyware maker Cognyte, often billed as an alternative to Pegasus, has been selling tech gear to the Signal Intelligence Directorate which comes under the Ministry of Defence

April 05, 2023 10:39 am | Updated 10:29 pm IST - NEW DELHI

A Cognyte booth at IDEX 2021 in Abu Dhabi. For over three years, Cognyte and its then-parent firm Verint Systems, have been supplying computer gear to the Signal Intelligence Directorate, which comes under the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Intelligence Agency. Photo: Twitter/@Cognyte

A Cognyte booth at IDEX 2021 in Abu Dhabi. For over three years, Cognyte and its then-parent firm Verint Systems, have been supplying computer gear to the Signal Intelligence Directorate, which comes under the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Intelligence Agency. Photo: Twitter/@Cognyte

An Indian defence agency has been purchasing equipment from an Israeli spyware firm that is being billed as a potential Pegasus alternative, according to trade data reviewed by The Hindu. The firm in question is Cognyte Software Ltd, which faces a class action lawsuit in the U.S. from investors.

“Cognyte regularly targeted journalists, dissidents, critics of authoritarian regimes, families of opposition, and human rights activists around the world, without their knowledge, and collected intelligence on these people by manipulating them to reveal information and/or by compromising their devices and accounts,” the U.S. law firm Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check LLP said on Monday, pointing to a ‘threat report’ by Facebook parent Meta Platforms on the “Surveillance for Hire” industry. 

Defence sources said on condition of anonymity that there is no equipment held with the Indian Army which can monitor end point communication devices such as smartphones.

Tracking trade data

However, for over three years, Cognyte and its then-parent firm Verint Systems Inc., have been supplying computer gear to the Signal Intelligence Directorate (SID), which comes under the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). No other imports of any kind have been logged in customs data by the SID in the last few years. One product from the firm was brought in as recently as January this year. On the trade data, sources said the equipment was cards for communication equipment in use, and was not related to encrypted equipment.

Cognyte did not respond to queries on the imports sent by The Hindu. A recent article by the Financial Times reported that the Indian government was seeking bids from spyware that rivals the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, and that Cognyte was one of the firms that the government was reportedly considering. 

‘IB imports from NSO Group’

The Pegasus spyware was reportedly used on Indian activists, journalists, and politicians, among others, according to reporting from the Forbidden Stories consortium of journalists. The Indian government has not categorically denied or admitted to buying the spyware; the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reported that it was able to review trade data confirming that the Intelligence Bureau (IB) imported gear from the NSO Group in 2017. The Hindu was able to separately confirm these imports as well. 

In 2019, The Week magazinequoted an anonymous SID official who described the agency’s use of spyware, claiming that they used a malicious link sent on WhatsApp to nab Mudasir Ahmed Khan, the alleged mastermind of the Pulwama terror strike where 40 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force died. 

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