The government on Tuesday skirted the issue of use of Pegasus software for interception of WhatsApp calls and messages. To a question on whether the government was tapping WhatsApp calls and messages and if it was using the Israeli software for the same, the government did not answer the question directly but merely said it had powers under the statute to make legal interception of Internet communication.
The government also said that as many as 10 agencies, including the CBI, Enforcement Directorate and the Intelligence Bureau, were authorised to make such interceptions under law.
“Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 empowers the Central Government or a State Government to intercept, monitor or decrypt or cause to be intercepted or monitored or decrypted, any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above or for investigation of any offence,” Minister for State for Home G Kishan Reddy said to the questions posed by DMK MP Dayanidhi Maran in the Lok Sabha during the question hour.
He added, “Similarly, Section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 empowers lawful interception of messages on occurrence of public emergency or in the interest of public safety.”
Elaborating on the checks and balances for tapping, Reddy said, “This power of interception is to be exercised as per provisions of law, rules and Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). Each such case is approved by the Union Home Secretary, in case of Central Government; and by Home Secretary of the State concerned, in case of a State Government.”
The competent authority in the central government has authorised 10 agencies for the purpose: Intelligence Bureau, CBI, ED, Narcotics Control Bureau, Central Board of Direct Taxes, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, National Investigation Agency, R&AW, Directorate of Signal Intelligence and Delhi Police Commissioner.
The questions and the reply came in the backdrop of revelations by WhatsApp that Israeli software Pegasus had targeted more than 140 phones in the country by embedding itself in the phones through a WhatsApp video call.
The software could not only relay all communication but also virtually operate the phone remotely. The Indian Express had reported that prominent civil rights activists and lawyers associated with the Bhima Koregaon case had been targeted by the software.
The NSO group, which owns Pegasus and is facing a legal suit by WhatsApp for this snooping in a US court, has maintained that it only sells the product to government agencies.