WhatsApp spying issue: No interception, says Ravi Shankar Prasad

IT and Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad speaks in the Rajya Sabha on November 28, 2019. Photo: RSTV/PTI

IT and Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad speaks in the Rajya Sabha on November 28, 2019. Photo: RSTV/PTI  


Opposition raises spyware issue in the Rajya Sabha.

Electronics and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Thursday parried questions on whether the government or any of its agencies had bought the spyware Pegasus from Israeli company NSO Group. Responding to specific questions from the Opposition, the Minister told the Rajya Sabha that there had been “no unauthorised interception” as far as he knew.

After Congress MP Digvijaya Singh called the attention of the House on the reported use of Pegasus to hack phones of Indians, Mr. Prasad told the House that the Ministry had taken cognisance of news reports in October that there had been a breach of data of Indians using Pegasus.

He said the government had issued a notice to NSO Group on November 26 seeking information about the impact of the spyware and was in constant talks with WhatsApp as well.

The government had not yet received the list of 121 Indians affected by the hack, Mr. Prasad said and added that the government would soon bring in a “robust data protection law”.

In a court case filed in the U.S. by WhatsApp, the NSO Group was accused of targeting about 1,400 WhatsApp users around the world, of whom around 100 affected users were Indian. WhatsApp told the court that the NSO Group sells its spyware Pegasus to government and private agencies. The latter, however, says explicitly on its website that it works largely with governments and government agencies.

Mr. Prasad said the government asked WhatsApp on November 1 about the incident. WhatsApp replied the next day saying that it had told the Ministry’s Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) on May 20 about the vulnerability detected and fixed in mid-May.

He added that WhatsApp’s top officials did not raise the issue during meetings with the government on July 26 and September 11. He said CERT-In had asked WhatsApp for further information on November 16 and issued a notice to NSO Group as well.

Watch | Explained: Pegasus, the spyware that came in via WhatsApp

After he finished his statement, Mr. Prasad was asked by several Opposition MPs whether the government had bought the spyware in question. While avoiding a direct reply, Mr. Prasad said, “There are Standard Operating Procedures” for government agencies when it comes to interceptions. He said though the Supreme Court has held the right to privacy a fundamental right, “terrorists and corrupt people” don’t have the right.

Mr. Singh said he agreed that the government had the “legal right” to intercept communication among terrorists, corrupt people and criminals, but asked Mr. Prasad whether the government had had “any business transaction with NSO Group”. Mr. Prasad said the government had issued a notice to NSO Group and that there were SOPs for security agencies. As the exchange continued, Mr. Prasad accused the Opposition of politicising the issue.

Congress MP Anand Sharma said while the government had the right to “authorised interception” under laid-down rules, he asked if “government agencies made unauthorised use of this spyware?”

Mr. Prasad replied that any unauthorised interception was “actionable” under law and that those affected should file FIRs.

“To the best of my knowledge, no unauthorised interception has been done,” he said.

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 8:43:12 AM |

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