Illegal surveillance not possible: Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw on Pegasus Project
Union minister for electronics and information technology (MeitY) Ashwini Vaishnaw on Monday said that reports suggesting India used Israeli spyware Pegasus to hack phones of journalists, activists and ministers were nothing but an “attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions”.
Vaishnaw, who was making his first speech in Parliament as the new MeitY minister, said the “highly sensational story” has made several “over the top allegations” but there is “no substance behind them”.
“It is not a coincidence that the reports have been published a day before the monsoon session of Parliament,” he said. “In the past, similar allegations were made [about the use of Pegasus] on WhatsApp but there is no factual basis to these and have been categorically denied.”
India is among the countries that used Israeli company NSO Group’s Pegasus phone hacking software to potentially target politicians, journalists and activists, an international collaborative investigation involving 17 media organisations including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Die Zeit said. India’s news website The Wire was one of the 17.
The first part of the multi-part investigation, released late on Sunday night, said that 38 Indian journalists (according to The Guardian), including those from mainstream publications (three current Hindustan Times journalists are named, as is one from sister publication Mint), and websites, apart from freelancers were targeted. The 38 are among 180 journalists the report said were targeted worldwide, including the editor of the Financial Times Roula Khalaf, and journalists from the Wall Street Journal, CNN, New York Times, and Le Monte.
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 Wire reported that 10 of the phones forensically examined in India showed they had either been hacked or showed signs of an attempted hacking.
NSO Group, in a response to Forbidden Stories and its media partners, said the interpretations from the leaked dataset were misleading. “The alleged amount of ‘leaked data of more than 50,000 phone numbers,’ cannot be a list of numbers targeted by governments using Pegasus,” it said, and added that it “does not have insight into the specific intelligence activities of its customers”.
Vaishnaw added that there were inconsistencies in the report. “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 40,000 numbers. The presence of the number does not indicate whether there was an attempted hack, or a successful one,” he said.
Citing NSO’s statement calling the report misleading, the minister said, “The response also states that the names of the countries using Pegasus is incorrect.”
Highlighting the Telegraph Act and Information Technology Act, he said, “No form of illegal surveillance is possible with the kind of checks and balances instituted by the government.”