The Modi government is looking to spend roughly $120 million on new spyware from firms that are likely less exposed as compared to NSO, whose Pegasus spyware the government has been allegedly using. A report from Financial Times states that about a dozen competitors are likely to join the bidding process.
As rival spyware makers prepare to bid for the “lucrative deals” that the Modi government is offering, NSO is feeling the brunt of making and selling spyware to just about any country that’s willing to pay. The Biden administration outlawed the use of all commercial spyware by federal agencies on March 27.
Additionally, at the “Summit for Democracy” held on March 30 hosted by the US, the governments of Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, France, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US said that they’ll be developing and implementing legal frameworks for the use of spyware.
That said, India, which also attended the conference has made no such claim. The government’s search for a less popular spyware program only goes on to show that there’s still a market for commercially available spyware.
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India’s run-in with Pegasus
There have been mixed reports in the past regarding whether or not the Modi government has used Pegasus or not. India has never publicly acknowledged being an NSO customer in the past, despite the company’s malware being found on journalists, academics and opposition leaders’ phones.
In 2022, a New York Times report from Jerusalem stated that India had purchased Pegasus from Israel as part of a bigger $2 billion defence deal in 2017. That said, there has been no word from the government itself confirming or denying the use of the spyware.
After some victims and media professionals filed PILs demanding probes into the matter, the Modi government ended up citing “national security” reasons at the Supreme Court hearings prompted thereafter by saying that it cannot reveal whether it used Pegasus.
That said, a technical committee appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate the matter also reported that the government failed to cooperate. It also reported that while it found the presence of malware in at least two phones it had tested, it could not be confirmed that this malware was Pegasus.
Will India find its next spyware?
Unfortunately, despite the latest legislation changes and governments continually being exposed for using spyware to target citizens, journalists and opposition leaders, the industry seems to be largely unaffected.
Those familiar with Indian deliberations told Financial Times that officials are considering Intellexa’s Greek-made Predator spyware. It’s already operational in countries with a low human rights index such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Madagascar and Oman. However, many of the other rivals bidding for Indian taxpayer money are from Israeli companies as well.
These companies include Quadream and Cognyte. The former has already been approved for sale to Saudi Arabia according to two Israeli officials following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Regardless, while discussions within the Indian ministry of defence over new spyware contracts are already in advanced stages, it’ll still take weeks to issue proposal requests that eventually kick off the bidding process.
It’s also worth noting that the money being offered on the table can also attract other, lesser-known spyware vendors from Australia, Italy, France, Belarus and Cyprus among any other countries that might have such capabilities as spyware companies actively try to overtake NSO, widely considered a pioneer in the field.
Other than the rising competition, NSO is also facing lawsuits from Apple and Meta, two of the most powerful tech companies on the planet. The US department of commerce also blocklisted the company in November 2021. Despite these roadblocks, NSO states that it remains “financially stable, profitable and cash positive” because of its contracts with US and Israeli allies, particularly in Western Europe and their continual growth.
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