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

Updated - July 20, 2021 12:13 pm IST

Published - July 19, 2021 05:05 pm IST - New Delhi

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

In a suo motu statement, he said there was no factual basis to the reports, as multiple checks and balances in India did not 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.

Explained:  Pegasus, the spyware that came in via WhatsApp

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.

Mr. Vaishnaw said, “A highly sensational story was published by a web portal last night. Many over the top allegations were made around this story. The press reports appeared a day before the monsoon session of Parliament. This can’t be a coincidence”.

“In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp . Those reports had no factual basis and were denied by all parties, including in the Supreme Court. The press reports of July 18 also appear to be an attempt to malign the Indian democracy and its well-established institutions,” he observed.

The only basis of these reports was 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, he noted.

Portal’s admission

The news portal’s report admitted that the mere presence of the phone in the list did not indicate spying unless the devices were put through technical analysis, he asserted.

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

He explained the “well-established procedure” for lawful interception of electronic communication for the purpose of national security by agencies at the Centre and the 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,” he stated.

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