No illegal surveillance possible in India: IT Minister

News of Pegasus software being used to illegally tap phones is an attempt to malign Indian democracy, he says

Information Technology (IT) and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw on Monday told the Lok Sabha that illegal surveillance is not possible in India given its laws and robust institutions and alleged that the news reports about Pegasus software being used to illegally tap phones is “an attempt to malign Indian democracy”.

In a suo moto statement, the Minister said there was no factual basis to the reports as multiple checks and balances in India don’t allow any unauthorised person to snoop on people.

The Minister’s statement followed Opposition protests on the first day of the Monsoon session over reports that several prominent personalities including Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi were potential targets of surveillance.

In a collaborative investigation by an international media consortium, more than 300 verified mobile phone numbers including two serving ministers, over 40 journalists, three opposition leaders and one sitting judge and several business persons and activists in India were identified as potential targets of hacking.

News portal The Wire carried reports about possible hacking using Pegasus, the Israeli software that is sold only to government agencies to tackle terror and crime.

Explained: Pegasus, the spyware that came in via WhatsApp

“A highly sensational story was published by a web portal yesterday night. Many over the top allegations have been made around this story. Hon’ble Speaker Sir, the press reports have appeared a day before the Monsoon session of Parliament. This cannot be a coincidence,” the IT Minister said.

“In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp. 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,” he added.

The Minister said that the only basis of these reports is the fact that the media consortium had access to a leaked database of 50,000 numbers and the individuals linked to these phone numbers were taken as people who were being spied upon.

Mr Vaishnaw said that the news portal’s report admitted that the mere presence of the phone in the list does not indicate spying unless the devices are put through technical analysis.

He also quoted the Israeli company, NSO, rubbishing the claims and pointing out factual inaccuracies in their report.

The minister explained “well established procedure” for lawful interception of electronic communication for the purpose of national security by agencies at the Centre and States.

“Hon’ble Speaker Sir, when we look at this issue through the prism of logic, it clearly emerges that there is no substance behind this sensationalism,” Mr Vaishnaw said.

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