Parliament house. (File photo)
Parliament house. (File photo)

Pegasus project: Surveillance, phone tapping debates in Parliament over yrs

Opposition lawmakers on Tuesday disrupted Parliament proceedings and demanded urgent debates over the alleged targeting by Israeli spyware Pegasus of politicians, journalists, and constitutional authorities
By Umar Sofi
UPDATED ON JUL 21, 2021 05:01 PM IST

Opposition lawmakers on Tuesday disrupted Parliament proceedings and demanded urgent debates over the alleged targeting by Israeli spyware Pegasus of politicians, journalists, and constitutional authorities. Issues such as surveillance and phone tapping have been raised in Parliament earlier as well. In responses to parliamentary questions over alleged illegal phone tapping, the governments including the present one, have maintained that there have only been lawful interceptions.

The current government has since 2014 repeatedly cited Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, saying it allows for interception “in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with the foreign States, or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of an offense.”

In response to Asaduddin Owaisi’s question on alleged unlawful surveillance in 2019, Ravi Shankar Prasad, the then electronics and information technology minister, told Lok Sabha that the allegations were part of attempts “to malign the government”. Prasad dismissed the allegations as “completely misleading”.

In February 2021, Lok Sabha member Maneka Gandhi asked the government whether it had found the presence of Pegasus spyware in the country or has it launched an investigation into the use or sale of any spyware on surveillance in the country. Sanjay Dhotre, the then minister of state for electronics and information technology responded by saying there is no such information available with the government.

Rajya Sabha member Ravi Prakash Sharma in November 2019 sought to know the number of cases of phone tapping authorised in 2018 and 2019 and the steps taken to check unauthorised and illegal phone tapping. In response, then minister of state for home affairs G Kishan Reddy gave no details about authorised phone tapping. He insisted no illegal tapping has taken place. Thus “no question arises” about steps the government has to take to check unauthorised and illegal phone tapping, he added.

In 2015, Parliament member Vishnu Dayal Ram asked the government about the strength of the surveillance agencies. He also sought details of specific organisations of government engaged in surveillance.

Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary, the then minister of state for home affairs, responded saying the assessment of the strength of security and intelligence agencies in the country is a continuous process. He refused to name such agencies of surveillance. Chaudhary said that details in this regard cannot be disclosed in the interest of national security.

In July 2015, the government told Parliament that “the present regime appears to be adequate and currently there is no proposal to bring out any new regulatory framework for lawful interception.”

Following the 2019 WhatsApp breach using Pegasus, the government told Parliament that it is working on the Personal Data Protection Bill to safeguard the privacy of citizens. The bill was tabled in Lok Sabha in December 2019 and was later referred to a parliamentary panel for a review.

In March 2015, the government said it intercepts calls “in unavoidable circumstances”. It added for this, the order may be issued by an officer, not below the rank of joint secretary, who has been duly authorised by the Union home secretary. The government said a provision that in remote areas or for operational reasons, where obtaining of prior direction for interception of message or class of messages is not feasible, the required interception of any message shall be carried out with the approval of the head or second officer of the authorised security agency at the central level and at least inspector general of police at the state level.

The government added on average, 5,000 interception orders per month are issued by the Union home secretary on the requests by law enforcement agencies.

Trinamool Congress lawmaker Derek O’Brien said his party will not allow Parliament to run until the government holds an open discussion on Pegasus. “The government tries to do politics with Covid. We do not want discussion on farmers. Repeal farm laws and tomorrow discuss Pegasus or TMC’s position is that there will be no more Parliament (proceedings) till August 13.”

Congress lawmaker Shashi Tharoor said if the government has been engaged in snooping, it needs to give an explanation. “If they say, they have not done it, then it is a more serious national security concern as some other governments might have done it since NSO (whose spyware Pegasus enables the remote surveillance of smartphones) only caters to vetted governments.”

Shiv Sena Member of Parliament Sanjay Raut has sought a joint parliamentary probe on the issue.

The government has again maintained the country has well-established processes to check unauthorised surveillance.

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