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.
The ministry referred to a response to a right to information (RTI) application given in 2019 to state that there is no “association” between the government of India and Pegasus, the Israeli spyware.
However, The Wire reported that the government response that Mr Vaishnav is referring to did not deny purchasing Pegasus spyware or even that it was considering purchasing Pegasus.
The information officer had then responded saying: “In this regard, it is informed that no such information is available with the CPIO [Central Public Information Officer].”
The RTI applicant, Saurav Das, said: “The RTI response to me neither confirmed nor denied the use of Pegasus.”
The Centre’s response to the consortium of journalists’ did not contain an outright denial regarding the purchase and use of Pegasus. It said the government agencies do not intercept calls without “sanctions and supervision from highly ranked officials in Central and state governments” that too for reasons only in “national interest”. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology reiterated the government has not indulged in any “unauthorised interception”.
The Wire, however, quoted experts to argue that hacking, which is primarily why Pegasus spyware is bought by countries, is no different from “unauthorised interception” and a crime as per the Information Technology Act, 2000.
The Pegasus Project has claimed that some of the numbers that appear in the records show traces of “infection by Pegasus”. They also quoted a Amnesty International report to say that at total of 67 phones that were part of the leaked records were forensically examined and 23 of them showed Pegasus infection, while 14 more showed signs of attempted infection.
The Pegasus Project also relied upon Artificial Intelligence analysis done at Citizen Lab to prove that phones in India were hacked using Pegasus.
Here’s the complete text of the response by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to questions posed by the ‘Pegasus Project’ media consortium:
India is a robust democracy that is committed to ensuring the right to privacy to all its citizens as a fundamental right. In furtherance of this commitment, it has also introduced the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 and the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, to protect the personal data of individuals and to empower users of social media platforms.
The commitment to free speech as a fundamental right is the cornerstone of India’s democratic system. We have always strived to attain an informed citizenry with an emphasis on a culture of open dialogue.
However, the questionnaire sent to the Government of India indicates that the story being crafted is one that is not only bereft of facts but also founded in pre-conceived conclusions. It seems you are trying to play the role of an investigator, prosecutor as well as jury.
Considering the fact that answers to the queries posed have already been in public domain for a long time, it also indicates poorly conducted research and lack of due diligence by the esteemed media organisations involved.
Government of India’s response to a Right to Information application about the use of Pegasus has been prominently reported by media and is in itself sufficient to counter any malicious claims about the alleged association between the Government of India and Pegasus.
India’s Minister of Electronics & IT has also spoken in detail, including in the Parliament, that there has been no unauthorised interception by Government agencies. It is important to note that Government agencies have a well established protocol for interception, which includes sanction and supervision from highly ranked officials in central & state governments, for clear stated reasons only in national interest.
The allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever.
In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp by Indian State. Those reports also had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including WhatsApp in the Indian Supreme Court.
This news report, thus, also appears to be a similar fishing expedition, based on conjectures and exaggerations to malign the Indian democracy and its institutions.
In India there is a well established procedure through which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out in order 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 interception of electronic communication are made as per relevant rules under the provisions of section 5(2) of Indian Telegraph Act ,1885 and section 69 of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2000.
Each case of interception, monitoring, and decryption is approved by the competent authority i.e. the Union Home Secretary. These powers are also available to the competent authority in the state governments as per IT (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009.
There is an established oversight mechanism in the form of a review committee headed by the Union Cabinet Secretary. In case of state governments, such cases are reviewed by a committee headed by the Chief Secretary concerned.
The procedure therefore ensures that any interception, monitoring or decryption of any information through any computer resource is done as per due process of law.