Centre must give a categorical response to Pegasus row: Justice B N Srikrishna
Retired Supreme Court judge Justice B N Srikrishna, who authored the first draft of the data protection bill in 2018, says the Narendra Modi government should probe the alleged phone hacking of ministers, politicians, activists and journalists, and also explicitly state if any of its agencies uses Israeli military-grade spyware Pegasus.
Justice Srikrishna, who was appointed by this government to identify and address issues in data protection in India in 2017, described the response of the government, which has thus far denied its involvement in any illegal surveillance as “unsatisfactory”.
“Even the French government has ordered an inquiry so we need to do that too,” said Justice Srikrishna. “I am not at all satisfied with the government’s response. They need to give a categorical answer about who’s behind the hacking.”
As unearthed by a collaborative investigation involving 17 media organisations, and reported by The Wire, which is one of the 17, the phone numbers of Union ministers Ashwini Vaishnaw and Prahlad Patel, opposition leaders Rahul Gandhi and Abhishek Banerjee, activists, and 38 journalists, including three from HT and one from its sister publication Mint, were potential targets of spyware.
While NSO Group, the Israeli firm that makes Pegasus, has maintained that only governments are its clients, India’s IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has called the investigation an “attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions”.
Home minister Amit Shah has questioned the timing of the revelations that came out just a day before the start of the monsoon session of Parliament. “Aap chronology samajhiye! (Understand the chronology) This is a report by the disrupters for the obstructers. Disrupters are global organisations which do not like India to progress. Obstructers are political players in India who do not want India to progress,” he had said.
“It has nothing to do with timing. That is irrelevant,” said Justice Srikrishna. “An important question is being asked in Parliament and they (government) should answer it. That is how democracy is strengthened. They should give an open answer so that such issues are frankly dealt with.”
Opposition parties, especially the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Congress have refused to let Parliament function until the government allows a discussion on the matter. TMC MPs staged a dharna on Tuesday asking Shah for a clarification after one of the reports revealed how TMC national general secretary and MP Abhishek Banerjee’s phone was on the list too along with that of their election advisor Prashant Kishor.
A consortium of 17 media organisations, including The Guardian, The Washington Post and India’s The Wire, had said a phone hacking software known as Pegasus was used to target potentially thousands of people around the world. The investigation was based on a data leak of around 50,000 numbers obtained by Amnesty International and Paris-based Forbidden Stories, a non-profit. To be sure, as the methodology of the investigation explains, the presence of a number does not indicate the individual’s phone was hacked — just that it was of interest. Amnesty International subsequently forensically investigated 67 of these phones, and found 23 hacked and 14 showing signs of attempted penetration.
The Congress has also demanded answers after reports revealed how phone numbers linked to Karnataka’s former deputy chief minister G Parameshwara, and aides of former chief ministers H D Kumaraswamy and Siddaramaiah were also on the surveillance list in 2019 when the JDS-Congress government collapsed.
The prosecutor’s office in France has confirmed instituting a probe into the hacking after the investigation revealed that Morocco allegedly put the number of French president Emmanuel Macron on the surveillance list.
“You can’t throw mud at people with allegations. You have to just give clear answers — did anyone in the government buy this software? And second, have they been using it for monitoring people?” Justice Srikrishna said.
Pegasus makes it possible for those using the software to intercept all communications on their targets’ device, including stored files as well as messages. The malware also allows for the device’s microphone and camera to be turned on, and its location logs accessed.
A spokesperson for the National Cyber Security Coordinator’s office said neither it nor the Computer Emergency Response Team or CERT-IN has the mandate to probe the alleged hacks.