Pegasus row: IT panel chief seeks action against officials
The head of the parliamentary committee on Information and Technology, Shashi Tharoor, has written to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla seeking action against three government officials for contempt of parliament after they expressed their inability to attend a meeting to discuss the Pegasus spyware controversy, people aware of the matter said.
The officials are the secretaries of the ministry of home affairs, the ministry of electronics and information technology, and the department of telecommunications; they were summoned by the panel for a meeting planned on July 28, to discuss the use of the malware to purportedly snoop on Indian citizens . The meeting was eventually called off after panel members from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) boycotted it, leaving it short of the quorum required to hold it.
The fact that there was no quorum may come to the rescue of the officials though, an expert in parliamentary matters said.
A person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named, said the secretary of MHA sent a letter seeking exemption as he had to attend an unavoidable meeting at the same time. The IT secretary said he was in a meeting with the joint parliamentary committee chairperson on the personal data protection bill. The DoT secretary too expressed an inability to attend the meeting, citing urgent parliamentary work, this person added.
“This is a breach of privilege and contempt of Parliament to not attend a departmentally related standing committee meeting,” the person mentioned above quoted the IT panel chief as saying in his letter to the Speaker.
A second person familiar with the proceedings said it was extremely rare for officials to skip a meeting like this at such short notice. “I think the last time something like this happened was in 1960s and even then the officials were held accountable,” the person said.
Separately, two of the ministries — telecommunications and electronics and IT— sent in background notes to the panel elaborating the current rules through which the government protects citizen data and protocols that can exist for legal interception of communications, the first person quoted above said. The Union home ministry did not submit a background note and neither of the two ministries that did mentioned Pegasus or its use, this person added.
A consortium of media organisations began reporting a series of stories since July 18 on a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers -- some belonging to politicians, journalists and activists -- around the world. The numbers are believed to have been selected for targeting for surveillance by clients of the NSO Group, which makes the military-grade mobile device spyware Pegasus. Of the 50,000 Amnesty International analysed 67 devices, and 37 of these confirmed a Pegasus infection.
Dozens of numbers on the list were linked to Indian citizens, including opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, journalists, activists, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa and the current electronics and IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw. The panel summoned officials to hear from the three above mentioned ministries regarding this issue, which has snowballed into one of the main controversies over which protests have broken out in parliament.
The government has called allegations regarding the use of Pegasus baseless and devoid of fact.
Wednesday’s meeting was called off after the panel failed to achieve quorum, which requires the attendance of at least one-third of the members . The BJP panel members staged a walk out, alleging the panel head was using the committee for a political purpose.
According to the first person quoted above, words were exchanged between BJP’s Nishikant Dubey and Congress’s Karti Chidambaram and Trinamool Congress’s Mahua Moitra. Dubey earlier in the day moved a breach of privilege motion against Tharoor, seeking his removal as the panel head.
On Thursday, he tagged Trinamool leader and Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee in a tweet and said he was abused “ by TMC MP Mahua Moitra” and that it exposed the “party’s hatred towards north Indians, especially the Hindi-speaking people, in front of the country”. He had added that Moitra had called him a ‘Bihari Gunda’ thrice in the meeting.
Moitra hit back saying that she was a “bit amused by charges of name-calling”. She added that the IT meeting “did not happen” and members did not attend any meeting. “How can I call someone a name who was not even present! Check attendancesheet!” she said in a tweet.
The ministries’ responses filed with the panel remain consistent with the government’s stance on lawful interception of information as outlined by Union minister Vaishnaw on July 19.
MeitY, in the note mentioned above, said that “privacy of personal data is a fundamental right with reasonable restrictions as enshrined in the Constitution”. It highlighted section 43(A) of the information technology act, which entitles the victim to compensation in case of unauthorised access to their data. It also highlighted the challenges to data privacy.
“Anonymity of data stealers provides yet another challenge in finding the perpetrator. Awareness about the need to protect personal data is one of major challenge. Also security w.r.t. hacking and leakage of data is a challenge. New forms of cybercrime like ransomware, where user data and system is hacked and encrypted and ransom is demanded to decrypt the data has emerged as a big challenge,” the ministry said.
It added that there is need a for a robust data protection law and that once the Personal Data Protection Bill becomes an Act, it will lay the “foundation of data privacy and cause a paradigm shift in how personal data is perceived, processed and protected in India”.
DoT outlined provisions for lawful interception and safeguards for citizens’ data under the Indian telegraph Act. It outlined the grounds under which “the government can intercept and monitor the communication from any telephone number after obtaining authorization from the Union home secretary, who can authorise the interception in any part of the country and home secretary of the State, for that State”.
According to former Lok Sabha secretary general PDT Achary, in keeping with convention, the officials who are called have to appear and if they can’t, they have to take the permission of the chairperson. “The rule is that the committee meeting has to be given the highest priority. However, in they are called away for another urgent meeting, they will have to apologise to the chair,” he said. “Not attending is a breach of privilege. If the speaker approves the notice, then the privilege committee will examine the issue.”
He said a wilful absence by an official is what becomes a matter of privilege. “But if the committee does not meet, if there is no quorum, then none of this counts. These are all well settled practices,” he added.