Apple’s warning to Opposition leaders, journalists on state-sponsored attacks on iPhones creates a flutter in political circles

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By Our Correspondent

NEW DELHI – An unusual notification issued by the U.S. tech giant Apple in the shape of a warning to multiple top leaders of India’s Opposition parties and several journalists, stating that their iPhones and digital devices were being targeted by “state-sponsored attackers” has created a flutter in the political circles. The alert stated: “Apple believes you are being targeted by state-sponsored attackers who are trying to remotely compromise the iPhone associated with your Apple ID.… .”

Shiv Sena (Uddhav faction) MP Priyanka Chaturvedi, Trinamool Congress’s Mahua Moitra, Congress’s Pawan Khera and Shashi Tharoor, CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury, AAP’s Raghav Chadha and AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi were among those who shared the alert sent by Apple. The novelist, columnist and newspaper editor Sriram Karri and Samir Saran, president of the think tank Observer Research Foundation, also said they had received the warning.

The unsavoury incident has brought the issue of state surveillance of citizens, and in particular of Opposition leaders, into focus shortly after the Pegasus episode of 2021, in which it was revealed that the software developed by the Israel-based NSO Group was used as a tool to advance Israeli interests, as Tel Aviv offered it to several countries which used it against Opposition leaders, journalists and dissidents.

The full text of the Apple alert was: “ALERT: State-sponsored attackers may be targeting your iPhone. Apple believes you are being targeted by state-sponsored attackers who are trying to remotely compromise the iPhone associated with your Apple ID. These attackers are likely targeting you individually because of who you are or what you do. 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.”

The government’s denials during the Pegasus episode were not convincing. The matter reached the Supreme Court but the questions were not satisfactorily answered. A court-appointed committee said that it could not find conclusive evidence of the use of the spyware and noted that the government had not cooperated in the investigation. The court said that it would consider the recommendations of the committee.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi held a press conference on the issue and accused the Narendra Modi government of doing everything possible to hide that they had sold the government to Adani. “Hack us all you want,” Gandhi said, “but we will not stop questioning you.” He also said that the government was going out of its way to distract from demands for a Caste Census. Adani was, in fact, stealing the money from the underprivileged, marginalized and common people, he said.

Apple later issued a clarification regarding the alerts and said it had not attributed the threat notifications to any specific state-sponsored attacker. “State-sponsored attackers are very well-funded and sophisticated, and their attacks evolve over time. Detecting such attacks relies on threat intelligence signals that are often imperfect and incomplete. It’s possible that some Apple threat notifications may be false alarms, or that some attacks are not detected.”

“We are unable to provide information about what causes us to issue threat notifications, as that may help state-sponsored attackers adapt their behavior to evade detection in the future,” Apple said in a statement, adding that it has sent threat notifications to individuals whose accounts are in nearly 150 countries.

While Apple did not specifically affirm that the Indian government was responsible, it is still unclear if Apple executives in India were aware that these alerts were going out in advance. Union Minister of Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw, who said the government had launched an investigation into the alerts, sought to downplay the episode by pointing out that Apple had sent these alerts to people in 150 countries.

“I would like to clearly say that the government is very concerned on this issue, and that we will get to the bottom of this,” Vaishnaw said. “This country has compulsive critics who wake up every day to criticize the government on any given issue. These people cannot stand seeing this country’s progress,” he said.

The MPs have been vocal in their criticism of the government and Mahua Moitra has questioned the alleged nexus of the Modi government with businessman Gautam Adani. Shashi Tharoor said he was glad to keep underemployed officials busy at the expense of taxpayers like him. “Nothing more important to do?” he asked in his social media post.

However, BJP IT cell’s chief Malviya said that the usual suspects were raising a storm over an alleged state-sponsored attack and pretending to be martyrs. “But this hullabaloo, in all probability, like in the past, will end up as damp squib! Why not wait for Apple to clarify? Or is it too much to let go of an opportunity to outrage?” he said.

According to an Apple support document published on the company’s website, the threat notifications are designed to inform and assist users who may have been targeted by state-sponsored attackers. The document says that unlike traditional cybercriminals, state-sponsored attackers apply exceptional resources to target a very small number of specific individuals and their devices, which makes these attacks much harder to detect and prevent.

It is evident that any inquiry ordered by the government into the Apple alerts will not be credible because it is the government itself which stands accused of conducting the surveillance. The alerts have been received only by Opposition leaders, while the government has come under criticism frequently for violation of citizens’ rights through surveillance, curbs on freedom of expression and attacks on the right to protest.

The legal experts have pointed out that the right to privacy is a fundamental right and illegal surveillance violates the right. Representatives of the government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre have often sought to justify surveillance as a necessary state action to protect national security. But surveillance of Opposition leaders cannot be defended on any ground, as there were charges in the past that the phones of critics and activists had been hacked to plant incriminating evidence against them.

As the final report of a Supreme Court committee set up to investigate the cases of the use of the military grade spyware is yet to be made public, the Apple episode could be a repeat of the Pegasus episode in which the members of the first and fourth estates of democracy were targeted. Apple’s iPhones are used by nearly 20% of smartphone users worldwide, and by nearly 7% of such users in India, largely for their diverse facilities and robust security provisions.

An apprehension that the ruling establishment is subjecting the Opposition leaders and journalists to surveillance has assumed significance during the current political atmosphere ahead of Assembly elections in several states and the general elections in 2024. The allegation of surveillance can only be verified by an independent investigation, involving the apex court again, which should compel the BJP government to come clean on the use of questionable software supplied by the tech giants.

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