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Wednesday, Dec 11, 2019

Shashi Tharoor’s casting vote ensures House panel to examine Pegasus deal

The issue of WhatsApp hacking, through the use of Pegasus software -- reports have said the accounts of 121 individuals in India were hacked -- was on the agenda, albeit not explicitly, as was the cyber threat to the Kudankulam nuclear plant.

india Updated: Nov 21, 2019 06:25 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
The panel is headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor.
The panel is headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor. (PTI Photo)
         

The meeting of Parliament‘s standing committee on information technology saw an unprecedented voting by members on whether the WhatsApp hacking issue could be taken up, and it took a casting vote before the panel agreed to do so, people familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity.

The panel is headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor. The issue of WhatsApp hacking, through the use of Pegasus software -- reports have said the accounts of 121 individuals in India were hacked -- was on the agenda, albeit not explicitly, as was the cyber threat to the Kudankulam nuclear plant. But even as the home secretary, the secretary of the IT ministry and the secretary of the department of atomic energy waited, the MPs debated whether they could take up the WhatsApp issue.

They finally decided the issue by vote. There were 24 members attending the meeting and the vote tied 12-all, after which a casting vote by the chairman was required, the people cited in the first instance added.

Wednesday’s meeting was the ninth of the panel, which has a total of 31 members. The agenda said “Citizens’ data security and privacy’’ and the discussion was to be on last month’s controversy surrounding revelations that journalists, activists and even politicians’ phones were under surveillance. The spyware that impacted their phones was made by an Israel-based company called NSO, which claimed it only sold its software to governments. The government has expressed its displeasure over the hacking to WhatsApp and said it will investigate the matter. Whatsapp has since expressed regret about the issue.

IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told Parliament on Wednesday that the government is committed to protecting the right to privacy and added that attempts to malign the government for reported breach are “misleading”.

On Wednesday, when the IT panel started its meeting, some members said the Rules of Lok Sabha 331 E say that the panel “shall not consider the matters of day to day administration of the concerned ministries/departments”, and instead only focus on larger policies, the people said.

The division was along party lines, they added. The BJP members believed the panel should not take up the issue. The others believed it could. Some of the latter pointed out that the agenda was circulated two weeks ago and was approved by all.

“There was confusion among the members about the agenda,’’ said one BJP MP, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There was an argument about whether the matter could be taken up by the committee or not. Some said that the Speaker should be consulted.’’

“We pointed out that the Speaker had already approved the agenda since the papers were all circulated weeks ago,’’ said a Congress MP. And so after consulting the rule book, and finally deciding to vote, the panel got down to business.

According to some of the members, the IT secretary briefed the panel on the department’s interactions with WhatsApp, and the secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy spoke of the response to the attack on Kudankulum and what had been done to “make the systems safer in the future”.

The chair of the committee Shashi Tharoor did not respond to queries.

Former Lok Sabha secretary general PDT Achary said, “I have never heard of a vote taking place on the subject to be taken up by a committee. That’s because there is a process to arrive at the subject. The secretariat of the committee drafts it after suggestions by committee members and then it is approved by the chairman of the committee. So, a vote on this is very rare.’’