Union IT Minister calls Pegasus report ‘attempt to malign Indian democracy’

“The press reports have appeared a day before the Monsoon Session. This cannot be a coincidence,” IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said in the Lok Sabha.
Union IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw speaking on the Pegasus spyware report in the Lok Sabha
Union IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw speaking on the Pegasus spyware report in the Lok Sabha
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A day after an investigation by a global media consortium revealed that around 50,000 phone numbers — around 300 from India — were believed to have been targeted for hacking through the Israeli spyware called Pegasus, Union Minister of Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw made a statement in the Lok Sabha dismissing the reports. Addressing the House, Vaishnaw said that the reports published on Sunday are an “attempt to malign Indian democracy,” and that there is “no substance to this sensationalism.”

“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. In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus. Those reports had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including in the Supreme Court. The press reports of July 18, 2021, also appear to be an attempt to malign the Indian democracy and its well-established institutions,” Ashwini Vaishnaw said, amid chants of ‘We want justice’ from Opposition seats. 

The minister was making a statement on the Pegasus project reports, published in India by The Wire, which showed that over 300 verified phone numbers — including those of two serving ministers, over 40 journalists, three opposition leaders and one sitting judge, besides scores of business persons and activists in India — could have been targeted for hacking through Pegasus. Pegasus, which had also made news in India in 2019, is only sold to government agencies by the Israeli NSO Group. 

Vaishnaw has said that there is no evidence of snooping and the report about the leak also states the same. “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. However, the report says that the presence of a phone number in the data does not reveal whether the device was infected with Pegasus or subject to an attempted hack. Without subjecting the phone to this technical analysis, it is not possible to conclusively state whether it witnessed 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 said.

The Union Minister cited NSO Group’s response to the newsbreak, in which it has said that “there can be no factual basis to suggest that a use of the data somehow equates to surveillance.”

“I highlight that NSO has also said that the list of countries shown using Pegasus is incorrect. Many countries mentioned are not our clients. NSO has also said most are western countries. NSO has also clearly rubbished the claims in the report,” Vaishnaw said. The Minister added that under Indian law, it is not possible to carry out illegal surveillance. 

“Any form of illegal surveillance is not possible with the checks and balances in our laws and robust institutions. 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 a public emergency or in the interest of safety by the agencies at the centre and states,” Vaishnaw said.

“When we look at the issue through the prism of logic, it clearly emerges that there is no substance whatsoever behind this sensationalism,” he added at the end of his speech. 

Speaker Om Birla adjourned the House till Tuesday, July 20, soon after the minister ended his statement. Opposition members in the House had been protesting over issues like price rise and three contentious farm laws.

The Congress has demanded an independent probe into the issue involving the alleged phone tapping of prominent personalities, including journalists and activists, in India using the Israeli spyware called Pegasus. Shashi Tharoor demanded an independent judicial or Parliamentary committee probe into the issue after the government denied having any involvement in the alleged phone tapping using Pegasus spyware. He said the Pegasus issue is a very serious one as it concerns national security. “Since the government has said that it has not done any snooping, this should be probed,” he said.

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