IT minister, Rahul Gandhi, Prashant Kishor among Pegasus ‘targets’

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The government on Monday denied claims that it had used spyware Pegasus to “compromise” the phone data of some persons but The Wire, the news portal which was a part of the Pegasus project that investigated possible snooping using the Israeli spyware in many countries, published fresh data that revealed IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw himself was on a long list of people who might have been victims.


The entire Opposition walked out soon after the minister’s statement both houses of Parliament were adjourned. Union Home Minister Amit Shah said the report was “by disrupters for obstructers”.


It was Vaishnaw who led the government defence that there was no truth in The Wire report. “The basis of this report is that there is a consortium which has got access to a leaked database of 50,000 phone numbers. The allegation is that individuals linked to these phone numbers were being spied upon,” Vaishnaw told the Lok Sabha, adding that this was not true because the report itself conceded that the mere presence of a phone number on the database did not mean the phones were infected with spyware, which could only be established after technical analysis.


The minister added the report had appeared a day before the monsoon session — this was not a coincidence. They had appeared earlier as well had been refuted. And India had “robust” systems to prevent illegal surveillance, he said.


But within minutes of his statement, The Wire, in the second part of its revelations from the international collaborative investigation, said spyware was found in the smartphones of key opposition strategist Prashant Kishor a host of other political leaders, including Vaishnaw himself.


ALSO READ: Decoded: The stealth with which Pegasus spyware infects phones, listens in


Pegasus is sold by Israeli company NSO Group to “vetted governments” around the world.


The Wire does not directly say the phones of those on the list were hacked. It says those on the leaked database of numbers — “believed to be selected by clients of NSO Group as potential targets for surveillance” — include Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at least two ministers in the Narendra Modi government: Vaishnaw (inducted as a minister of railways, communications electronics, information technology on July 7), minister of state Prahlad Singh Patel. The list reveals that several people associated with the functioning of elections were also selected for potential surveillance. This includes Ashok Lavasa, the only election commissioner to fault the BJP for violations of the model code of conduct in the lead-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.








The records also include a founder of the key election watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), Jagdeep Chhokhar, who was put on the list at around the same time as Lavasa.


The leaked data has also revealed that over 11 phone numbers belonging to the Supreme Court staffer her close relatives who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in April 2019 were selected as targets for surveillance.


The list also includes someone who has been a key part of India’s battle against Covid-19, the virologist Gagandeep Kang. She was selected for potential surveillance in 2018, when she was helping deal with the fight against the Nipah virus.


Vaishnaw in his statement, which was repeatedly interrupted by leaders of the Opposition, said this degree of snooping by the government was just not possible.


ALSO READ: Pegasus row: ‘Aap Chronology Samajhiye,’ says Shah on snooping allegation


“In India, there is a well-established procedure through which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out for the purpose of national security, particularly on the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety, by agencies at the Centre States. The requests for these lawful interceptions of electronic communication are made as per the relevant rules under the provisions of section 5(2) of Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Each case of interception or monitoring is approved by the competent authority. These powers are also available to the competent authority in the State Governments as per the IT (Procedure Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009. There is a very-well established oversight mechanism in the form of a review committee headed by the Union Cabinet Secretary. In case of a State Government, such cases are reviewed by a committee headed by the Chief Secretary concerned. The law also provides an adjudication process for those people who are adversely affected by any such incident. The procedure, therefore, ensures that any interception or monitoring of any information is done as per due process of law,” he said.


Opposition leaders including Rahul Priyanka Gandhi National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partner Janata Dal (United) said they were shocked shaken at the revelations. The Congress demanded that Union Home Minister Amit Shah be sacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi must be investigated alleged that the government can now listen to “bedroom conversations”.


ALSO READ: Illegal surveillance


“This is clearly ‘treason’ total abdication of ‘national security’ by the Modi government, more so when the foreign company could possibly have access to this data,” a Congress statement said.


Interestingly, Ravishankar Prasad, recently removed as IT minister, had his own twist. The last time the reports surfaced, he defended the government. On Monday he said, “The NSO, which is the manufacturer of Pegasus, has clearly said that its clients are mostly Western nations. So why is India being targeted in this matter? What is the story behind this? What is the twist in the tale?”


Opposition leaders, including those of the highly vocal Trinamool Congress, have vowed they will not let the story die down. The matter will come up again on Tuesday, when Parliament meets.

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Centre eases stock limits on pulse traders, lifts them fully for importers

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With traders importers voicing strong opposition to the stringent stock limit on pulses imposed earlier this month, the Centre today relaxed some of the limits for wholesalers retailers lifted it completely for importers within days of imposing them.


There has been no change in stock holding limit for retailers which has been kept at 5 metric tonnes.





Smaller pulses such as kidney beans (rajma), kabuli chana, lobia (black-red eye beans), peas moth have also been taken out of the purview of the stock holding limits.


As per revised order, wholesalers can now hold upto 500 tonnes of pulses provided one variety should not exceed 200 metric tonnes.


In the earlier order issued on July 2, wholesalers could hold only 200 tonnes of pulses. (see chart)


That apart, millers can now hold stocks which are equivalent to their last six months of production or 50 per cent of annual installed capacity whichever is higher.


Earlier, millers could hold stocks equivalent to three months of their production or 25 percent of annual installed capacity whichever was higher.


“The relaxation for millers will have a down-streaming effect in terms of giving an assurance to the farmers at this crucial juncture of kharif sowing of urad tur,” an official statement said.


It added that due to the crackdown on pulses hoarders, in two months around 8343 registrations of stocks have been made on the official portal while stocks of around 3 million tonnes have been declared.


The official statement also said that because of the various measures initiated by the government in the last few months, wholesale prices of all pulses except masur have fallen by 3-4 per cent in the last two months retail prices over the same period have fallen by 2-4 months.


Earlier, this month, Food Secretary Sudhanshu Pandey had said that pulses stocks limits have been imposed despite a cooling down of prices in the last two months as in the retail markets rates are still higher than last year.


“This is good news for the industry a good decision taken by the government. The market may surge on account of increasing stock limits. But we must understthe government’s initiative to control prices, which is a good cause. Since this news broke on Monday, which is the opening of the week, the market may improve but for a limited time, as they have to liquidate stocks within 30 days. Good news for Pea, Kabuli Chana, Moth, Lobia, Rajma,” said Rahul Chauhan, of iGrain India, a commodity trading research firm.


Bimal Kothari, vice chairman of Indian Pulses Grains Association said that the move to relax the stock limits will smoothen supplies in the coming months stabilize prices during the forthcoming festive period.

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Common cholesterol drug may reduce COVID-19 severity, study finds

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Coronavirus patients taking statins prior to hospitalization substantially reduced their odds of in-hospital death severe COVID-19, researchers found, confirming earlier findings. Statin drugs are frequently used to lower blood cholesterol levels prevent cardiovascular disease.

A team of scientists from University of California San Diego School of Medicine published findings in PLOS ONE last week, analyzing anonymized records on over 10,500 hospitalized COVID-19 patients admitted across 104 U.S. hospitals between January-September 2020 enrolled in the American Heart Association’s COVID-19 Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) Registry.

At the start of the pandemic, researchers speculated statins could act against COVID-19 through their “known anti-inflammatory effects binding capabilities, which could potentially stop progression of the virus,” Lori Daniels, MD, lead study author, professor director of the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit at UC San Diego Health, wrote in a news release. Statins upregulate the ACE-2 receptor to convert angiotension control blood pressure, however ACE-2 is also a doorway for the virus causing COVID-19. Medications for cholesterol high blood pressure help stabilize underlying diseases, likely boost patients’ odds of recovering from COVID-19 disease, study authors said.

AN AVOCADO A DAY COULD LOWER ‘BAD’ CHOLESTEROL LEVELS, STUDY SUGGESTS

CDC PANEL TO WEIGH COVID-19 BOOSTER SHOTS IN IMMUNOCOMPROMISED PATIENTS

Patients were 66 years old on average, most patients (71%) had high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, or both. Over 80% of all patients taking statins were also taking at least one drug to treat high blood pressure, patients taking either class of medication or both were typically older, female had a number of health issues.

Results indicated patients taking a statin alone saw a 46% lower odds of death, about 25% lower risk of developing severe COVID, versus patients on neither class of medication. Patients taking both a statin anti-hypertensive dropped risk of death by 40%.

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“As with any observational study, we cannot say for certain that the associations we describe between statin use reduced severity of COVID-19 infection are definitely due to the statins themselves; however, we can now say with very strong evidence that they may play a role in substantially lowering a patient’s risk of death from COVID-19,” Daniels said. “We hope that our research findings are an incentive for patients to continue with their medication.”

Use of an anti-hypertensive drug alone was linked to a “smaller albeit still substantial 27% lower odds [of death],” the team found. Of the total 10,540 hospitalized patients, 21% died, 39% had a severe outcome, nearly one-third were sent to the ICU 19% needed mechanical ventilation.

Daniels noted that most benefits were seen among patients with a history of cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure, linked to a 32% lower risk of death.

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Bumper listing for GR Infra at 2x the issue price, Clean Science up 76%

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GR Infraprojects Clean Science Technology clocked stellar gains during their stock market debut on Monday.


GR Infra, a road construction company, saw its shares end at Rs 1,747, up 2.1 times over its issue price of Rs 837. While that of Clean Science, specialty chemical manufacturer, rose 76 per cent to end at Rs 1585.2 as compared to its IPO price of Rs 900.





GR Infra’s listing day gains were best this year after Indigo Paints, while the surge in Clean Science is now the fourth best after the aforementioned two companies MTAR Technologies.


The listing day surge comes a week before the listing of India’s first unicorn company Zomato.


IPOs of GR Infra Clean Science had attracted bids worth Rs 1.73 trillion. GR Infra’s IPO was subscribed 103 times, while Clean Science’s had garnered 95 times subscription.


Out of the 25 IPOs this year, 19 companies now have delivered gains on their listing day. Of the remaining six, shares of three companies have recovered currently trade above their Issue price the other three trade just marginally below their issue price.


The IPOs of both GR Infra Clean Science were secondary share sale by promoters. After the strong debut, GR Infra has a market cap of Rs 16,900 crore, while Clean Science is valued at Rs 16,838 crore.

Dear Reader,

Business Standard has always strived hard to provide up-to-date information commentary on developments that are of interest to you have wider political economic implications for the country the world. Your encouragement constant feedback on how to improve our offering have only made our resolve commitment to these ideals stronger. Even during these difficult times arising out of Covid-19, we continue to remain committed to keeping you informed updated with credible news, authoritative views incisive commentary on topical issues of relevance.

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As we battle the economic impact of the pandemic, we need your support even more, so that we can continue to offer you more quality content. Our subscription model has seen an encouraging response from many of you, who have subscribed to our online content. More subscription to our online content can only help us achieve the goals of offering you even better more relevant content. We believe in free, fair credible journalism. Your support through more subscriptions can help us practise the journalism to which we are committed.

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US, key allies squarely blame Chinese govt for recent cyber attacks

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The U.S., U.K. their allies formally attributed the Microsoft Exchange hack to actors affiliated with the Chinese government accused Beijing’s leadership of a broad array of “malicious cyber activities,” escalating last week’s tensions between the White House China.


The group of nations said Monday that the Chinese government has been the mastermind behind a series of malicious ransomware, data theft cyber-espionage attacks against public private entities, including the sprawling Microsoft Exchange hack earlier this year.





“The Chinese Government must end this systematic cyber sabotage can expect to be held account if it does not,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Monday in a statement.


The White House said that it was joining with European nations to expose the scale of China’s activity will take steps to counter it.


President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House on Monday that the investigation isn’t finished but that the Chinese government bears responsibility.


“My understanding is that the Chinese government, not unlike the Russian government, is not doing this themselves, but are protecting those who are doing it maybe even accommodating them being able to do it,” Biden said.


Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that “responsible states” don’t harbor cyber criminals.


“These contract hackers cost governments businesses billions of dollars in stolen intellectual property, ransom payments cybersecurity mitigation efforts, all while the MSS had them on its payroll,” Blinken said, referring to China’s Ministry of State Security.


‘Economic Loss’


The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said that the cyberattack was conducted from China “resulted in security risks significant economic loss for our government institutions private companies.” The activities were linked to the hacker groups Advanced Persistent Threat 40 Advanced Persistent Threat 31, according to an EU statement on Monday.


The group of nations attributing the attack to China includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan NATO, marking the first condemnation by the North American-European alliance on China’s cyber activities, the senior Biden administration official said.


ALSO READ: Work from home fuelling cyber attacks, says global financial watchdog


Monday’s announcement will add to the range of issues — including economic, military political — the U.S. China have been at odds over. Those tensions intensified last week when the administration warned investors about the risks of doing business in Hong Kong with an advisory saying China’s push to exert more control over the financial hub threatens the rule of law endangers employees data.


The U.S. also charged four Chinese nationals affiliated with the Ministry of State Security with a campaign to hack into computer systems of dozens of companies, universities government entities in the U.S. abroad between 2011 2018. The indictment, which was unsealed Monday, alleges that the hackers targeted, among other things, Ebola vaccine research.


Biden has called competition with China one of the defining challenges of the century. China’s leaders were surprised by the administration’s decision to leave in place tariffs imposed by former President Donald Trump, were infuriated by its support for reopening a review of how the Covid-19 pandemic started — whether it leaked from a lab in Wuhan.


With the report Monday, the U.S. aims to show how China’s Ministry of State Security uses criminal contract hackers to conduct unsanctioned cyber operations globally, including for its own personal profit.


“In some cases, we are aware that PRC government-affiliated cyber operators have conducted ransomware operations against private companies that have included ransom demands of millions of dollars,” the White House said in a fact sheet.


The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment outside of office hours. In March, the ministry dismissed allegations that China-based government hackers were behind cyberattacks on Microsoft Exchange servers, accusing the company of making “groundless accusations,” saying that tracing the source of cyberattacks is a “highly sensitive political issue.” China has long insisted that it is not a perpetrator but a victim of cyberattacks.


50 Tactics


As part of the announcement, the National Security Agency, the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency the Federal Bureau of Investigation detailed more than 50 tactics Chinese state-sponsored cyber hackers used when targeting U.S. allied networks, including spearphishing emails with malicious attachments, exploitation of public-facing applications drive-by compromise.


The agencies also provided advice technical mitigations to confront threats, such as installing patches to protect against system vulnerabilities, strengthening login password requirements storing critical information on air-gapped systems.


Among the threats is state-sponsored cyber extortion, also known as ransomware attacks, in which the Chinese government has demanded millions of dollars from private companies in exchange for digital keys that allow victims to regain access to their computer networks, the official said.


Microsoft Corp. welcomed the global effort to attribute the attacks called for future accountability.


“Attributions like these will help the international community ensure those behind indiscriminate attacks are held accountable,” said Tom Burt, corporate vice president, Customer Security & Trust. “Transparency is critical if we’re to combat the rising cyberattacks we see across the planet against individuals, organisations nations.”


Microsoft has previously attributed the hack to Chinese actors the software giant called Hafnium. The U.S.’s assessment appears to support Microsoft’s conclusions, attributing the hack to MSS-affiliated actors with “a high degree of confidence,” according to the fact sheet.


The attack against Microsoft’s Exchange email servers exploded over the course of two weeks between late February early March. Microsoft first released software patches on March 2 to fix the critical vulnerabilities exploited in the hack. The attack exposed tens of thousands of victim email systems, including those of health-care facilities, manufacturers, energy companies state local governments.


Until now, most ransomware attacks had been attributed to Eastern European North Korean operators. Now, the U.S. is accusing the Chinese government of not only leading malicious cyber operations, but also of hiring mercenaries, according to the official. The claim accuses China of not only sponsoring espionage, but also supporting possibly endorsing the work of cyber criminals executing these attacks.


Due to the breadth of victims around the world, the formal attribution came only after the U.S. had attained a high confidence level on the source of the hack, the announcement could be made in concert with allies, the official added.

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