‘Attempt to malign democracy’: Centre slams snooping charges
The software, made by Israel-based NSO Group, said it only supplies to government clients.
Union minister for electronics and information technology (MeitY) Ashwini Vaishnaw on Monday said that reports suggesting India used Israeli spyware Pegasus to infiltrate phones of journalists, activists, Opposition leaders and ministers were nothing but an “attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions”, with home minister Amit Shah slamming those “amplifying” the reports for “humiliating India”.
Vaishnaw, who was making his first speech as the new MeitY minister in Parliament, said that the “highly sensational story” has made several “over the top allegations” but there is “no substance behind them”.
His statement came barely an hour before he was named as one of the ministers who had been targeted, according to an investigation by a consortium of media houses, including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and India’s The Wire, that said phone hacking software Pegasus was used to target potentially thousands of people around the world.
“It is not a coincidence that the reports have been published a day before the monsoon session of Parliament,” Vaishnaw said. “In the past, similar allegations were made about WhatsApp but there is no factual basis to these and have been categorically denied.”
He also highlighted the protocols and checks and balances instituted by the government when it comes to lawful interception of data, under the Telegraph Act and the Information Technology Act. “No form of illegal surveillance is possible in India with the kind of checks and balances instituted by the government,” he said.
The software, made by Israel-based NSO Group, said it only supplies to government clients. On Monday, reports said that aside from 38 journalists, former Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi, two of his aides, political strategist Prashant Kishor, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa and Union minister Prahlad Patel were also potential targets for phone hacking. The list also included 11 members of the friends and family along with the woman who accused former Chief Justice of India Rajan Gogoi of sexual harassment.
Vaishnaw added that there were inconsistencies in the reports. “One report clearly states that the presence of a number on NSO’s list does not mean it is under surveillance,” he said.
“The consortium has accessed a leaked database of 50,000 numbers. The presence of the number does not indicate whether there was an attempted hack, or a successful one,” he said.
The issue has snowballed into a political slugfest between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition parties. While the opposition parties are demanding a probe, and raised the issue in Parliament, the BJP has denied any link to the wrongdoing.
Former IT and telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that there is “not even a shred of evidence” to link the BJP or the Union government to the entire Pegasus snooping controversy and raised questions about the timing of the story coinciding with the monsoon session of Parliament.
Responding to the Congress party’s demand for an independent probe into the issue, he said, “We strongly refute, condemn the baseless and bereft of political propriety comments of the Congress party. This is a new low in the political discourse of the party that has ruled India for 50 years.”
Prasad also questioned the credentials of those behind the story.
“Those who broke the story themselves said that the presence of a particular number in the database does not confirm that it is infected with Pegasus,” he said, questioning the timing of the story a day before Parliament’s Monsoon Session began on Monday.
He brushed aside a question on the Congress’ demands for Shah’s resignation.
“With the Congress shrinking and losing, the entire row is timed to disrupt Parliament and build a baseless agenda,” he said.
He also accused previous governments of snooping. “One can go on and on about Congress’ history of infringing upon people’s privacy and freedom,” he said.
Claiming that there was a conspiracy to target the Modi government as India developed under the Prime Minister’s leadership, he wondered if some people had become “supari agents” (hired agents) for such “international conspiracies”.