Union Home Minister Amit Shah led the charge as the government Monday denounced reports that Pegasus spyware could have been used to snoop on journalists, politicians and activists, calling it an attempt “to malign Indian democracy and its well established institutions”.
Both Shah and Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw hinted that the reports were timed to coincide with the start of the Monsoon Session of Parliament.
Addressing Parliament amidst Opposition sloganeering, Vaishnaw said, “A highly sensational story was published by a web portal yesterday night. Many over-the-top allegations have been made around this story. The press reports have appeared a day before the Monsoon Session. This cannot be a coincidence.”
Shah released a statement, where attacking the Opposition for disrupting Parliament and raising the issue of Pegasus, he said, “In what seemed like perfect cue, late last evening we saw a report which has been amplified by a few sections with only one aim — to do whatever is possible and humiliate India at the world stage, peddle the same old narratives about our nation and derail India’s development trajectory.”
In a statement on his website, he added, “People have often associated this phrase with me in a lighter vein but today I want to seriously say — the timing of the selective leaks, the disruptions… Aap Chronology Samajhiye! 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. People of India are very good at understanding this chronology and connection.”
Vaishnaw told the House that in the past too similar claims had been made regarding the use of Pegasus. “Those reports had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including in the Supreme Court.”
He added, “The basis of (the news) report is that there is a consortium which has got access to a leaked database of 50,000 phone numbers. The allegation is that individuals linked to these phone numbers were being spied upon. However the report says that the presence of phone numbers in the data does not reveal whether a device was infected by Pegasus or subject to an attempted hack. Without subjecting the phone to this technical analysis, it is not possible to conclusively state whether it is an attempted hack or was successfully compromised. The report itself clarifies that the presence of a number in the list does not amount to snooping.”
Vaishnaw also pointed out the statement by NSO, the Israeli firm behind Pegasus. “I quote, ‘NSO group believes that, claims you have been provided with, are based on misleading interpretation of leaked data from basic information… which have no bearing on the list of customer targets of Pegasus or any other NSO products. Such services are openly available to anyone, anywhere and anytime, and are commonly used by governmental agencies as well as by private companies worldwide’. It is beyond dispute that the data has nothing to do with surveillance or with NSO,” Vaishnaw said.
He added, “NSO has also said that the list of countries shown using Pegasus is incorrect, that many countries mentioned are not even (its) clients. It also said that most of its clients are western countries.” However, the minister did not categorically say if India used Pegasus, or was its client or not.
Vaishnaw said India had established protocols when it comes to surveillance, which had “stood the test of time”. “I am sure my friends in the Opposition who have been in government for years are very well aware… In India there is a well-established procedure through which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out for the purpose of national security, particularly on the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety, by agencies at the Centre and in states. The requests for these lawful interceptions… are made as per Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, and Section 69 of the IT Act, 2000. Each case of interception is approved by the competent authority. These powers are also available to the competent authorities in state governments… The law also provides an adjudication process for those people adversely affected by any such incident,” he said.
“When we look at this issue through the prism of logic,” Vaishnaw said, “it clearly emerges that there is no substance whatsoever behind this sensationalism.”
The BJP also held a press conference to deny the charges, fielding former IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who there was not a “shred of evidence” to link the ruling party or the Modi government with the Pegasus data that had come out.
Prasad also questioned the credentials of those behind the story, alleging that while The Wire, the news portal which broke it in India, had been earlier associated with stories found “incorrect”, Amnesty International, that was associated with the global project, has a declared “anti-India” agenda.
Brushing aside Congress demands for resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah and a probe against the PM, Prasad said the row was timed to disrupt Parliament at a time when the Congress is “shrinking and losing”.
In his statement on his website, the Home Minister said the leak of the list had come at a time when the government was trying to push key Bills. “The people of India have high hopes from the current Monsoon Session. Key Bills for the welfare of farmers, youngsters, women and the backward sections of society are lined up,” he said, noting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that the government was ready to discuss all topics.
Shah also repeated Modi’s claim in Parliament Monday over the Opposition protests. “Just a few days ago the Council of Ministers was expanded with great emphasis given to women, SC, ST and OBC members. But there are forces unable to digest this. They also want to derail national progress. This merits the question — to whose tune are these people dancing, who want to keep showing India in poor light?”
Shah added, “To see the rudderless Congress, jump on to this bandwagon is not unexpected. They have good past experience in trampling over democracy and with their own house not in order, they are now trying to derail anything progressive that comes up in Parliament.”