The government on Monday denied claims that it had used spyware Pegasus to “compromise” the phone data of a few persons but The Wire, the news portal which used to be part of the Pegasus project that investigated conceivable snooping the use of the Israeli spyware in many countries, published fresh data that revealed IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw himself used to be on a long list of people that might have been sufferers.
All the Opposition walked out soon after the minister’s remark and both houses of Parliament were adjourned. Union Home Minister Amit Shah said the outline used to be “by disrupters for obstructers”.
It used to be Vaishnaw who led the government defence that there used to be no truth in The Wire outline. “The basis of this outline is that there’s 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 used to be not true because the outline itself conceded that the mere presence of a phone number on the database did not intent the phones were infected with spyware, which could only be established after technical analysis.
The minister added the outline had appeared a day before the monsoon session — this used to be not a coincidence. They had appeared earlier as timed and had been refuted. And India had “robust” systems to prevent unlawful surveillance, he said.
But inside minutes of his remark, The Wire, in the second one a part of its revelations from the international collaborative investigation, said spyware used to be found in the smartphones of key opposition strategist Prashant Kishor and a host of other political leaders, including Vaishnaw himself.
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Pegasus is sold by Israeli company NSO Group to “vetted governments” around the globe.
The Wire does indirectly 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 and no less than two ministers in the Narendra Modi government: Vaishnaw (inducted as a minister of railways, communications and electronics, and information technology on July 7), and 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 mannequin code of conduct in the lead-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The records also include a founder of the key election watchdog Organization for Democratic Reforms (ADR), Jagdeep Chhokhar, who used to be 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 and her near 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 a part of India’s battle against Covid-19, the virologist Gagandeep Kang. She used to be selected for potential surveillance in 2018, when she used to be helping care for the fight against the Nipah virus.
Vaishnaw in his remark, which used to be repeatedly interrupted by leaders of the Opposition, said this degree of snooping by the government used to be just not conceivable.
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“In India, there’s a well-established procedure through which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out for the purpose of national security, especially on the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety, by agencies at the Centre and States. The requests for these lawful interceptions of electronic communication are made as per the applicable rules under the provisions of section 5(2) of Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 and section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Every case of interception or monitoring is approved by the competent authority. These powers are also to be had to the competent authority in the State Governments as per the IT (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009. There’s 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 find themselves adversely affected by this type of incident. The procedure, due to this fact, ensures that any interception or monitoring of any information is done as per due process of law,” he said.
Opposition leaders including Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi and National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partner Janata Dal (United) said they were shocked and shaken at the revelations. The Congress demanded that Union Home Minister Amit Shah be sacked and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to be investigated and alleged that the government can now listen to “bedroom conversations”.
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“This is clearly ‘treason’ and complete abdication of ‘national security’ by the Modi government, more so when the foreign company might be able to have access to this data,” a Congress remark said.
Interestingly, Ravishankar Prasad, recently removed as IT minister, had his own twist. The final 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’s the story in the back of this? What’s the twist in the tale?”
Opposition leaders, including those of the highly vocal Trinamool Congress, have vowed they’ll not let the story die down. The matter will come up again on Tuesday, when Parliament meets.