Alleged State-Sponsored Hacking Attempts: Indian Opposition Leaders and Journalists Receive Alerts from Apple
On Monday night, over a dozen Indian Opposition leaders and journalists received alarming notifications from the U.S.-based technology giant Apple, indicating that their digital devices were being targeted by what the company described as “state-sponsored attackers.” While the recipients of these alerts expressed concerns over potential hacking attempts, the Indian government announced its intent to investigate the matter. However, the Minister for Electronics and Information Technology, Ashwini Vaishnaw, dismissed the Opposition’s claims of espionage as “vague.”
Prominent Figures Receive Alerts
Several high-profile Opposition leaders shared screenshots of these alerts on their social media platforms. These included Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra, Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav, Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, and Congress MPs Shashi Tharoor and K.C. Venugopal. Former Congress Chief Rahul Gandhi also revealed that individuals working in his office had received similar notifications.
Rahul Gandhi insinuated that these “snooping” attempts are triggered as soon as Opposition leaders have any interactions with industrialist Gautam Adani. Mahua Moitra echoed this sentiment, suggesting that the entire episode was a “desperate distraction” from ongoing reports concerning alleged corrupt activities involving the Adani Group.
Alerts and Government Response
Apple’s alert message contained a warning about potential remote attacks on iPhones, suggesting that state-sponsored attackers were trying to compromise devices associated with recipients’ Apple IDs. The company emphasized that these alerts may be false alarms but encouraged recipients to take the warnings seriously.
Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, however, downplayed the significance of these alerts, noting that Apple had sent similar notifications to individuals in 150 countries. He also urged Apple to cooperate with the government’s investigation.
It is important to note that Apple did not specify a “specific state actor” behind these attempted attacks. While Vaishnaw pointed out the wide distribution of these alerts, the company later clarified that this statistic encompassed notifications sent over several years, not just recent ones.
The exact details of how Apple identified these targets and whether Indian Apple executives had prior knowledge of the alerts remain unclear. Apple maintains that revealing the reasons for issuing such threat notifications could assist state-sponsored attackers in evading detection in the future.
Other Figures Receiving Alerts
Numerous other politicians reported receiving the Apple alerts, including K.T. Rama Rao, Minister of Information Technology, Electronics, and Communications in Telangana, Chhattisgarh Deputy Chief Minister T.S. Singhdeo, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen MP Asaduddin Owaisi, and Shiv Sena (UBT) MP Priyanka Chaturvedi.
Priyanka Chaturvedi expressed her concern as an Indian citizen, emphasizing that hacking attempts violate fundamental rights. She wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, highlighting her reservations and suggesting that government agencies may be targeting the Opposition instead of those who genuinely pose threats to the nation.
Notably, no member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the broader National Democratic Alliance reported receiving such alerts.
A Historical Perspective: Post-Pegasus Era
This incident marks the second time that Opposition politicians and civil society actors in India have been informed that they were targets of potential spying. In 2021, the Paris-based Forbidden Stories collective reported the use of Pegasus spyware on a range of Indian journalists, civil society groups, and politicians. The Indian government did not deny its use of Pegasus and did not participate in a Supreme Court-led investigation into the matter.
Furthermore, import data uncovered by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) revealed that the Intelligence Bureau, under the Ministry of Home Affairs, had imported equipment from the NSO Group in 2017.
Many Opposition leaders argue that such alerts indicate a violation of their fundamental rights and that government agencies may be directing their efforts toward surveilling the Opposition rather than addressing actual threats to the nation.
As this situation unfolds, it remains to be seen how the government, Apple, and affected individuals will proceed in investigating these alert messages and any potential hacking attempts.