The Ministry of Defence (MoD) informed Parliament on Monday that it did not have any transaction with NSO Group Technologies, the Israeli company that developed the Pegasus spyware, in the first pointed reference to the company from the government since the controversy broke. The government response so far has shied away from mentioning the company.
“Ministry of Defence has not had any transaction with NSO Group Technologies,” Minister of State for Defence Ajay Bhatt said in a written reply in the Rajya Sabha to a question from CPI(M)’s V. Sivadasan.
However, the response is specific to the MoD and does not exclude other Ministries or agencies that may have engaged with the firm.
Pegasus was used to snoop on civilians, journalists, Ministers, parliamentarians and activists across the world, including India, according to the reports by a consortium of 17 international media organisations based on an investigation conducted by Paris-based media non-profit organisation Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International into a leaked list of over 50,000 phone numbers that are believed to be been targeted through Pegasus or of interest for potential snooping.
In India, more than 300 mobile numbers, including that of two serving Ministers, three Opposition leaders, one sitting judge, journalists and activists among others were targeted by Pegasus, reports stated.
Minister rejects charges
Minister for Communications, Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw had rejected allegations of snooping on Indians by the government. He had said they were at attempt to “malign” the Indian democracy. In a suo moto statement in the Lok Sabha, he had stated that with several checks and balances being in place, any sort of illegal surveillance by unauthorised persons is not possible in the country.
Stating that the Pegasus issue has “national security dimensions”, Opposition parties have been demanding a discussion in Parliament on the issue leading to the stalling of the ongoing monsoon session.
NSO Group, which had rejected the revelations as “wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories”, said that it sold the spyware only to “vetted governments” for use against terrorists and major criminals.
The Supreme Court is currently hearing petition on the matter filed by senior journalists and the Editors Guild of India among others. Last week, the court observed that allegations of the government using Pegasus to snoop on citizens, if true, were “no doubt serious” and observed that the “truth has to come out”.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet had termed the revelations “extremely alarming” and called on governments to immediately cease their own use of surveillance technologies in ways that violate human rights.