The cell phones of relatives and counselors close to the Dalai Lama – whom they could not spy on directly because he does not use a mobile phone – were marked as possible espionage targets by the Indian authorities who have contracted Pegasus spy software from the Israeli firm NSO Group.

The first requests from the Indian authorities came at the end of 2017, on the occasion of a meeting in New Delhi between the Dalai Lama and former US President Barack Obama, who was arriving from China. Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, has been in exile since 1959 in Dharamsala, near the Himalayas, where a few kilometers away are numerous Chinese checkpoints on the border with India. Although the spiritual leader does not have a cell phone, those close to him, including his shipped in New Delhi Tempa Tsering and their advisers Tenzin Taklha and Chhimey Rigzen, they would have been closely watched through the Pegasus software.

Other phone numbers selected by Delhi were those of the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile, Lobsang Sangay, the office staff of another Buddhist spiritual leader, the Gyalwang Karmapa, and various activists and clergy who are part of the exiled community. Lobsang Sangay first appears on the list in mid-2018, when he was Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile and increased travel to India and abroad.

The Tibetan authorities have not yet made their phones available to carry out the forensic analysis that would determine that the cell phones were infected by the Pegasus spyware. Although the fact of being on the list confirms that the numbers were marked of interest by clients of the Israeli firm.

Pegasus customers

Recent research known as Project Pegasus carried out by Forbidden Stories Y International Amnesty and disseminated by a consortium of 17 international media, including the Indian news portal The Wire, revealed that some 50,000 phone numbers were marked of interest to be spied on by government clients of the NSO Group.

“The leaked database showed that the phone numbers of various Tibetan officials, activists and clerics were dialed from late 2017 to early 2019,” The Wire reported. Although the records do not name the clients of the Israeli firm, the NSO Group had stated that it only markets its spyware to governments and to “combat terrorism.” According to the Indian media that is part of the international media consortium that published the research, “the government of India never acknowledged or denied that it had deployed the Pegasus software, but the Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto had identified India as the location. of at least two clients of NSO Group ”.

The Wire reported that since the Pegasus Project investigation, last week they sent a questionnaire to the Indian government with the names of Tibetan officials for the administration to confirm the espionage. “The Indian government responded that the ‘allegations regarding the government’s surveillance of specific individuals have no concrete basis or associated truth’,” the news portal published on Thursday.

For his part, Minister of Communications and Information Technologies, Ashwini Vaishnaw, assured before the Indian Parliament that the Pegasus Project’s assertions about Indian surveillance were an “attempt to smear Indian democracy.” “The presence of a number on the list does not amount to espionage … there is no factual basis to suggest that the use of the data amounts to surveillance in any way,” the minister said.

The next Dalai Lama

According The Wire, the succession of the 86-year-old Dalai Lama is a topic of interest to India. “Possible scrutiny by Tibetan spiritual and government leaders points to a growing awareness in Delhi, as well as in western capitals, of the strategic importance of Tibet, as its relations with China have grown more strained in the past five years,” reported the media in its investigation. “India wants to ensure that the Tibetans do not reach an agreement with the Chinese that involves the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet,” said a former Tibetan administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to a medium from Project Pegasus.

Early reports on the Pegasus Project indicated that two current ministers in Narendra Modi’s government, three opposition political leaders, as well as journalists and businessmen were on the list of 50,000 possible targets for Israeli spyware.

The investigation by the international media consortium revealed that spyware was used by states to spy on opposition leaders, human rights activists, lawyers and journalists. Pegasus works through a malware that, once it infects the cell phone, can access all the messaging content, contact list, and also allows the camera and the microphone of the mobile phone to be activated.


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