Ruling out a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into alleged surveillance using the Pegasus spyware, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, who heads the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, said Wednesday that the committee will “do its duty” and that the subject is “already on the mandate of my committee”.
The House committee has called representatives of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Ministry of Home Affairs and Department of Telecommunications on July 28 to discuss citizens’ data security and privacy.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Tharoor said there was no need to set up a JPC to look into the disclosures since the standing committee and the JPC have identical rules.
He said the government has been saying that they have done no unauthorised surveillance. He said while one must take the government’s word for it, “but if they are implying that there was authorised surveillance, then they will have to explain on what basis it was authorised”.
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“It is an active issue and until the committee has reported I cannot speak in my capacity as chairman. As an individual MP, I can say that this is an issue of utmost gravity and seriousness for Indian democracy. Because the implied allegation is that a government agency has been using a software intended for tracking criminals and terrorists and used it for the partisan political benefit of the ruling party. That is the implied allegation. Because if you look at the list of people who have been tapped, the figures are either Opposition politicians or journalists or people of other kinds of similar interest to the ruling party such as the (Ranjan) Gogoi harassment case family… the lady and her family, secretaries of leaders and so on,” he said.
Tharoor said the laws are very clear about surveillance. “Interception of communications is only supposed to be authorised on grounds of national security or the prevention of a crime. There are rules and procedures governing that. If you read the IT Act of 2000, sections 43 and 66 read together… hacking … which is to introduce any malware or spyware into a computer device, computer network etc is actually against the law which is punishable by three years in prison or 5 lakhs or both.”
“So given that hacking is not legal under the IT Act… so basically either the government says that no unauthorised events took place, which means either it authorised it but in that case whoever authorised it runs up against the blatant illegality of the authorisation. Otherwise, if our government didn’t do it, some other government had to have done it because NSO claims that the software is only sold to governments… And that too governments that are vetted by them and then approved by the Israeli government. So in these circumstances, either way it is serious. Either somebody in the Indian government has broken Indian laws, and assaulted our democracy, or a foreign government is intruding upon Indian politics and Indian public life by snooping on our people,” he said.
Either way, Tharoor said, a serious investigation is warranted. “So in my personal capacity, and not as chairman, I have called for a judicial investigation, because I believe that in this matter you need an independent voice. I mean, the committee will do its duty. I think if you actually were to do this through a judicial inquiry, you will certainly have a judge with the authority to summon witnesses and documents, to get phones forensically analysed for example to see if there are traces of hacking, may be even to weigh the evidence in a judicial manner and come up with the conclusions.”
Asked whether a JPC was warranted, he said: “It is already on the mandate of my committee. Strictly speaking, you don’t need to create a new committee to do something that is already within the mandate of one committee. Yes, they did that on the personal data protection Bill… I don’t see what benefit there is in a JPC when there already is a parliamentary committee. It will have exactly the same rules. The rules of the JPC and the rules of the parliamentary committee are identical. So we are already doing the job.”
Asked whether he believed the government would be willing to set up a judicial probe, he said: “That’s the question. Frankly, I think that some people may be going to the Supreme Court directly to ask for a judicial probe. And if the Supreme Court doesn’t take cognisance of it, there is also a Commissions of Inquiry Act under which a judicial probe can be appointed.”
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