THE CHHATTISGARH government has decided to set up a three-member committee to look into suspicions that NSO, the Israeli company that owns the spyware Pegasus, held a meeting with the state’s police “two to three years ago” to sell the product.
The committee will also look into allegations that residents of the state have been subject to snooping, officials said.
An order signed by Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel states that complaints have been “received that two to three years ago, the Israeli company NSO had made a presentation regarding their software to the Chhattisgarh Police”.
“These kinds of allegations are very serious since they are connected to the freedom of people. It is essential to investigate these complaints,” it states.
According to the order, the Principal Secretary (Home) will head the probe committee, which will include the Raipur IG and Secretary, Department of Public Relations — it will be assisted by the state DGP. “The committee will do a detailed investigation of the entire events, and will present an evidence based report within a month,” the order states.
On October 31, The Indian Express first reported Facebook-owned WhatsApp had filed a federal suit in San Francisco alleging that journalists and human rights activists had been the target of surveillance by operators using Pegasus.
The report said that NSO has disputed the allegations and claimed that their technology was not designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists — and that they licensed their product only to “vetted and legitimate government agencies.”
Reacting to the report, the central government said that they were “concerned at the breach of privacy of citizens of India” and had asked WhatsApp to explain the breach and “what it was doing to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indian citizens”.
While WhatsApp pegged the number of those targeted to “at least a hundred members of civil society”, The Indian Express had also spoken to several of those affected, including at least three activists residing in Chhattisgarh. These include Bela Bhatia, human rights activist and lawyer based in Bastar, Shalini Gera also a human rights lawyer based in Bastar, and Degree Prasad Chauhan, a tribal and Dalit rights activist based in Raigarh.
Questions about a possible meeting between representatives of NSO and the Chhattisgarh Police surfaced on November 2, following a report in The Sunday Guardian. Senior officials said the police establishment has been asked to hunt for any remnants of that meeting — or of a paper trail.
Multiple sources within the police and the state administration, however, said an exact version of events is still proving difficult to establish, with officials who may have been part of the meeting denying their involvement or offering separate narratives.
“This is possibly because it is such a big and sensitive case that nobody wants to get caught in the middle. We don’t believe Pegasus was bought (by the Chhattisgarh government), but we need to know for sure. It’s safe to say some kind of meeting did occur, but whether the matter ended there or how far it went is important to establish. This committee makes the investigation official,” a senior state government official said.