IT minister, Rahul Gandhi, Prashant Kishor among Pegasus 'targets'

Pegasus is sold by Israeli company NSO Group to “vetted governments” around the world | Photo: Shutterstock
The government on Monday denied claims that it had used spyware Pegasus to “compromise” the phone data of some persons but The Wire, the news portal which was a part of the Pegasus project that investigated possible snooping using the Israeli spyware in many countries, published fresh data that revealed IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw himself was on a long list of people who might have been victims.

The entire Opposition walked out soon after the minister’s statement and both houses of Parliament were adjourned. Union Home Minister Amit Shah said the report was “by disrupters for obstructers”.

It was Vaishnaw who led the government defence that there was no truth in The Wire report. “The basis of this 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,” Vaishnaw told the Lok Sabha, adding that this was not true because the report itself conceded that the mere presence of a phone number on the database did not mean the phones were infected with spyware, which could only be established after technical analysis.

The minister added the report had appeared a day before the monsoon session -- this was not a coincidence. They had appeared earlier as well and had been refuted. And India had “robust” systems to prevent illegal surveillance, he said.

But within minutes of his statement, The Wire, in the second part of its revelations from the international collaborative investigation, said spyware was found in the smartphones of key opposition strategist Prashant Kishor and a host of other political leaders, including Vaishnaw himself.

Pegasus is sold by Israeli company NSO Group to “vetted governments” around the world.

The Wire does not directly say the phones of those on the list were hacked. It says those on the leaked database of numbers -- “believed to be selected by clients of NSO Group as potential targets for surveillance” -- include Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and at least two ministers in the Narendra Modi government: Vaishnaw (inducted as a minister of railways, communications and electronics, and information technology on July 7), and minister of state Prahlad Singh Patel. The list reveals that several people associated with the functioning of elections were also selected for potential surveillance. This includes Ashok Lavasa, the only election commissioner to fault the BJP for violations of the model code of conduct in the lead-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The records also include a founder of the key election watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), Jagdeep Chhokhar, who was put on the list at around the same time as Lavasa.

The leaked data has also revealed that over 11 phone numbers belonging to the Supreme Court staffer and her close relatives who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in April 2019 were selected as targets for surveillance.

The list also includes someone who has been a key part of India’s battle against Covid-19, the virologist Gagandeep Kang. She was selected for potential surveillance in 2018, when she was helping deal with the fight against the Nipah virus.

Vaishnaw in his statement, which was repeatedly interrupted by leaders of the Opposition, said this degree of snooping by the government was just not possible.

“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 States. The requests for these lawful interceptions of electronic communication are made as per the relevant rules under the provisions of section 5(2) of Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 and section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Each case of interception or monitoring is approved by the competent authority. These powers are also available to the competent authority in the State Governments as per the IT (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009. There is a very-well established oversight mechanism in the form of a review committee headed by the Union Cabinet Secretary. In case of a State Government, such cases are reviewed by a committee headed by the Chief Secretary concerned. The law also provides an adjudication process for those people who are adversely affected by any such incident. The procedure, therefore, ensures that any interception or monitoring of any information is done as per due process of law,” he said.

Opposition leaders including Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi and National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partner Janata Dal (United) said they were shocked and shaken at the revelations. The Congress demanded that Union Home Minister Amit Shah be sacked and Prime Minister Narendra Modi must be investigated and alleged that the government can now listen to “bedroom conversations”.

“This is clearly ‘treason’ and total abdication of ‘national security’ by the Modi government, more so when the foreign company could possibly have access to this data,” a Congress statement said.

Interestingly, Ravishankar Prasad, recently removed as IT minister, had his own twist. The last time the reports surfaced, he defended the government. On Monday he said, “The NSO, which is the manufacturer of Pegasus, has clearly said that its clients are mostly Western nations. So why is India being targeted in this matter? What is the story behind this? What is the twist in the tale?”

Opposition leaders, including those of the highly vocal Trinamool Congress, have vowed they will not let the story die down. The matter will come up again on Tuesday, when Parliament meets.

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