As the Pegasus phone-hacking scandal rocks the ongoing Monsoon Session, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor-led parliamentary panel on information technology (IT) decided to take up the matter for inquiry on July 28.
The Modi government is facing the heat in Parliament for the last two days over claims that the Israel-made spyware, which is sold only to governments, was used to hack phones of politicians, journalists and activists with an intention to snoop on them.
Tharoor had said on Tuesday: “If it turns out that it’s our govt & it’s authorized (to do it), GoI needs to give an explanation as the law only permits interception of communication for issues of national security, terrorism; otherwise, it’s illegal. It is essential for the government to cooperate in a probe.”
The Standing Committee on IT is likely to question representatives of the Ministry of Electronics and IT, the Home Ministry and Ministry of Communications.
A consortium of media outlets, called “Pegasus project”, has claimed that a number of Indian citizens, including politicians, journalists and activists, were potential targets for Pegasus, a spyware developed by Israel-based firm NSO Group. The controversy broke after French media non-profit ‘Forbidden Stories’ leaked a database of phone numbers to the consortium, claiming that owners of those phones were potential targets for snooping. The consortium includes The Wire, Washington Post, The Guardian, and other media groups.
The Wire has claimed that the numbers of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, poll strategist Prashant Kishor, two union ministers, Trinamool Congress leader Abhishek Banerjee and some 40 journalists were selected as potential targets of snooping. There is, however, no proof to suggest that numbers found in the database were actually hacked.
The Union government responded to charges of spying on Indian politicians and journalists using an Israeli spyware by arguing that the questions raised by a consortium of journalists, part of the Pegasus Project, have already been answered.
The new Minister of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), Ashwini Vaishnav, issued a statement clarifying the Centre’s response. “Considering the fact that answers to the queries posed have already been in the public domain for a long time, it also indicates poorly conducted research and lack of due diligence by the esteemed media organisations involved,” the letter read.
Vaishnav told Lok Sabha that the country has a system in place which allows lawful interception of electronic communication for national security, particularly in the case of a public emergency or in the interest of public safety. He said the stringent rules in place ensure “unauthorised surveillance does not occur”.
Tharoor said the Pegasus controversy is a very serious matter and the Centre is answerable to questions raised by the elected representatives. “It has been proved that phones examined in India had an invasion of Pegasus. Since this product is only sold to vetted governments, the question arises which government? If the Government of India says they have not done it, some other government did it, then it is a more serious national security concern,” Tharoor told news agency ANI.