Police linked to hacking campaign to frame Indian activists
Written by Andy Greenberg

Published: June 16, 2022

Police forces around the world have increasingly used hacking tools to identify and track protesters, expose political dissidents’ secrets, and turn activists’ computers and phones into inescapable eavesdropping bugs. Now, new clues in a case in India connect law enforcement to a hacking campaign that used those tools to go an appalling step further: planting false incriminating files on targets’ computers that the same police then used as grounds to arrest and jail them.

More than a year ago, forensic analysts revealed that unidentified hackers fabricated evidence on the computers of at least two activists arrested in Pune, India, in 2018, both of whom have languished in jail and, along with 13 others, face terrorism charges. Researchers at security firm SentinelOne and nonprofits Citizen Lab and Amnesty International have since linked that evidence fabrication to a broader hacking operation that targeted hundreds of individuals over nearly a decade, using phishing emails to infect targeted computers with spyware, as well as smartphone hacking tools sold by the Israeli hacking contractor NSO Group. But only now have SentinelOne’s researchers revealed ties between the hackers and a government entity: none other than the very same Indian police agency in the city of Pune that arrested multiple activists based on the fabricated evidence.

“There’s a provable connection between the individuals who arrested these folks and the individuals who planted the evidence,” says Juan Andres Guerrero-Saade, a security researcher at SentinelOne who, along with fellow researcher Tom Hegel, will present findings at the Black Hat security conference in August. “This is beyond ethically compromised. It is beyond callous. So we’re trying to put as much data forward as we can in the hopes of helping these victims.”

SentinelOne’s new findings that link the Pune City Police to the long-running hacking campaign, which the company has called Modified Elephant, center on two particular targets of the campaign: Rona Wilson and Varvara Rao. Both men are activists and human rights defenders who were jailed in 2018 as part of a group called the Bhima Koregaon 16, named for the village where violence between Hindus and Dalits—the group once known as “untouchables”—broke out earlier that year. (One of those 16 defendants, 84-year-old Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, died in jail last year after contracting Covid-19. Rao, who is 81 years old and in poor health, has been released on medical bail, which expires next month. Of the other 14, only one has been granted bail.)

Early last year, Arsenal Consulting, a digital forensics firm working on behalf of the defendants, analyzed the contents of Wilson’s laptop, along with that of another defendant, human rights lawyer Surendra Gadling. Arsenal analysts found that evidence had clearly been fabricated on both machines. In Wilson’s case, a piece of malware known as NetWire had added 32 files to a folder of the computer’s hard drive, including a letter in which Wilson appeared to be conspiring with a banned Maoist group to assassinate Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. The letter was, in fact, created with a version of Microsoft Word that Wilson had never used, and that had never even been installed on his computer. Arsenal also found that Wilson’s computer had been hacked to install the NetWire malware after he opened an attachment sent from Varvara Rao’s email account, which had itself been compromised by the same hackers. “This is one of the most serious cases involving evidence-tampering that Arsenal has ever encountered,” Arsenal’s president, Mark Spencer, wrote in his report to the Indian court.

In February, SentinelOne published a detailed report on Modified Elephant, analyzing the malware and server infrastructure used in the hacking campaign to show that the two cases of evidence fabrication Arsenal had analyzed were part of a much larger pattern: The hackers had targeted hundreds of activists, journalists, academics, and lawyers with phishing emails and malware since as early as 2012. But in that report, SentinelOne stopped short of identifying any individual or organization behind the Modified Elephant hackers, writing only that the “activity aligns sharply with Indian state interests.”

Now the researchers have gone further in nailing down the group’s affiliations. Working with a security analyst at a certain email provider—who also spoke to WIRED but asked that neither they nor their employer be named—SentinelOne learned that three of the victim email accounts compromised by the hackers in 2018 and 2019 had a recovery email address and phone number added as a backup mechanism. For those accounts, which belonged to Wilson, Rao, and an activist and professor at Delhi University named Hany Babu, the addition of a new recovery email and phone number appears to have been intended to allow the hacker to easily regain control of the accounts if their passwords were changed. To the researchers’ surprise, that recovery email on all three accounts included the full name of a police official in Pune who was closely involved in the Bhima Koregaon 16 case.

The three hacked accounts have other fingerprints that link them—and thus the Pune police—to the larger Modified Elephant hacking campaign: The email provider found that the hacked accounts were accessed from IP addresses that SentinelOne and Amnesty International had previously identified as those of Modified Elephant. In the case of Rona Wilson, the email provider security analyst says that Wilson’s email account received a phishing email in April 2018 and then appeared to be compromised by the hackers using those IPs, and at the same time the email and phone number linked to the Pune City Police were added as recovery contacts to the account. The analyst says Wilson’s email account was then itself used to send out other phishing emails to targets in the Bhima Koregaon case for at least two months before Wilson was arrested in June of 2018.

“We generally don’t tell people who targeted them, but I’m kind of tired of watching shit burn,” the security analyst at the email provider told WIRED of their decision to reveal the identifying evidence from the hacked accounts. “These guys are not going after terrorists. They’re going after human rights defenders and journalists. And it’s not right.”

To further confirm the link between the recovery email and phone number on the hacked accounts and the Pune City Police, WIRED turned to John Scott-Railton, a security researcher at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, who along with others at Amnesty International had earlier revealed the extent of the hacking campaign against the Bhima Koregaon 16 and shown that the NSO hacking tool Pegasus had been used to target some of their smartphones. To prove that the Pune City Police controlled the recovery contacts on the hacked accounts, Scott-Railton dug up entries in open source databases of Indian mobile phone numbers and emails for the recovery phone number that linked it to an email address ending in pune@ic.in, a suffix for other email addresses used by police in Pune. Scott-Railton found that the number is also linked in the database to the recovery email address connected to the hacked accounts for the same Pune police official.

Separately, security researcher Zeshan Aziz found the recovery email address and phone number tied to the Pune police official’s name in the leaked database of TrueCaller, a caller ID and call-blocking app, and found the phone number linked to his name in the leaked database of iimjobs.com, an Indian job recruitment website. Finally, Aziz found the recovery phone number listed with the official’s name on multiple archived web directories for Indian police, including on the website of the Pune City Police. (WIRED also verified that at the time the accounts were compromised, the email provider would have sent a confirmation link or text message to any recovery contact information added to an email account, which suggests that the police did, in fact, control that email address and phone number.)

Scott-Railton further found that the WhatsApp profile photo for the recovery phone number added to the hacked accounts displays a selfie photo of the police official—a man who appears to be the same officer at police press conferences and even in one news photograph taken at the arrest of Varvara Rao.

WIRED reached out in multiple emails and phone calls to the Pune City Police and the Pune police official whose personal details were linked to the hacked accounts and received no reply.

One Mumbai-based defense attorney representing several of the Bhima Koregaon 16, Mihir Desai, says he would need to independently corroborate the new evidence of the Pune police’s links to the hacking campaign. But taken at face value, he says, it appears “very damning.” He adds that he is hopeful it could help his clients, including Anand Teltumbde, who has been accused of terrorist connections based in part on an apparently fabricated document found on Rona Wilson’s computer. “We’ve known things have been planted, but the police could have always said, ‘we are not involved in all this,’” says Desai. “By showing the police did this, it would mean there was a conspiracy to arrest these people. It would show the police have acted in a vicious and deliberate manner knowing fully well this was false evidence.”

The conclusion that Pune police are tied to a hacking campaign that appears to have framed and jailed human rights activists presents a disturbing new example of the dangers of hacking tools in the hands of law enforcement—even in an ostensible democracy like India. SentinelOne’s Guerrero-Saade argues that it also raises questions about the validity of any evidence pulled from a computer that’s been hacked by a law enforcement surveillance operation. “This should invite a conversation about whether we can trust law enforcement with these sorts of malware operations at all,” says Guerrero-Saade. “What does it mean to have evidentiary integrity when you have a compromised device? What does it mean for somebody to hack a device for fact-finding in a law enforcement operation when they can also alter the contents of the device in question?”

Beyond any larger questions, Guerrero-Saade and his fellow SentinelOne researcher Tom Hegel say they’re focused on the fate of the victims in the Bhima Koregaon case, almost all of whom have remained in jail even as the evidence against them proves to be more corrupt with every year. Ultimately, the researchers hope their findings can not only demonstrate police wrongdoing in the case, but win those activists and human rights defenders their freedom. “The real concern here is the folks languishing in prison,” says Guerrero-Saade. “We’re hoping this leads to some form of justice.”


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