Responding to allegations that it could be using Pegasus, spyware developed by the Isralei company NSO to snoop on journalists, politicians and activists, Union government on Monday called the story “sensational”, and seeming to be an attempt “to malign Indian democracy and its well established institutions”. Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw also said that the reports appearing a day before the Monsoon session of parliament cannot be a coincidence.
Amid a loud day in the Lok Sabha, with opposition leaders shouting slogans, Vaishnaw said, “I rise to make a statement on reported use of spyware Pegasus to compromise phone data of some persons. A highly sensational story was published by a web portal yesterday night. Many over the top allegations have been made around this story. The press reports have appeared a day before the Monsoon session of parliament. This cannot be a coincidence.” The reports are part of a global collaborative investigative project, anchored in India by the Wire, a digital news platform.
Vaishnaw said that in the past too, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus. “Those reports had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties including in the Supreme Court. Press reports of 18 July 2021 also seem to be an attempt to malign the Indian democracy and its well established institutions,” he said.
“The basis of this report is that there is a consortium which has got access to a leaked data base of fifty thousand phone numbers. The allegation is that individuals linked to these phone numbers were being spied upon. However the report says that the presence of phone numbers in the data does not reveal whether a device was infected by Pegasus or subject to an attempted hack. Without subjecting the phone to this technical analysis, it is not possible to conclusively state whether it is an attempted hack or was successfully compromised. The report itself clarifies that the presence of a number in the list does not amount to snooping,” he said.
In his address to the house on the issue, Vaishnaw also quoted from the NSO’s defence on the issue, denying the allegations. “I highlight, sir, that NSO has also said that the list of countries shown using Pegasus is incorrect. Many countries mentioned are not even our clients. It also said that most of its clients are western countries. It is evident that NSO has also clearly rubbished the claims in the report,” he said.
Vaishnaw said that India had established protocols when it comes to surveillance which were robust and had “stood the test of time.” “India’s established protocols when it comes to surveillance. I am sure my friends in opposition who have been in government for years are very well aware of these protocols. Since they have governed the country they would also be aware that any form of illegal surveillance is not possible with the checks and balances with our laws and robust institutions. 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 and the state. The requests for these lawful interceptions for electronic communications are made as per the relevant rules as per section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 and section 69 of the IT Act, 2000. Each case of interception is approved by the competent authority. These powers are also available to the competent authorities to the state governments,” he said.
Vaishnaw added, “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, this committee is 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 is done as per due process of law.”
Vaishnaw said that in conclusion, it “emerges” that there was no “substance behind this sensationalism.” “In conclusion, I humbly submit that the publisher of the report states that it cannot say that if the numbers in the published list were under surveillance. Second, the company whos technology was allegedly used has denied these claims outrightly. And the time tested procedures of our country are well established to ensure that unauthorized surveillance cannot occur.When we look at this issue through the prism of logic, it clearly emerges that there is no substance whatsoever behind this sensationalism,” Vaishnaw said.