At the start of this month we asked the following question: Can the Indian government confirm it did not use WhatsApp spyware on Indians? We weren’t the only ones.
A group of journalists, lawyers and human rights activists that had been targeted by the spyware, known as Pegasus, wrote to the government two weeks ago asking the same question. The matter was also brought up in the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology, despite an attempt to prevent a discussion by the Bharatiya Janata Party members. And Members of Parliament have put the question directly to the government.
Take Lok Sabha MPs Asaduddin Owaisi and Imtiaz Jalil’s question which came up on Wednesday:
“Will the Minister of Electronics & Information Technology be pleased to state... whether the Government has taken cognizance of the reports of alleged use and purchase of the Pegasus spyware by Government agencies and if so, the details thereof along with the reaction of the Government thereto.”
The answer, from Ravi Shankar Prasad, minister of electronics and information technology, was as follows:
“Some statements have appeared, based on reports in media, regarding this. These attempts to malign the Government of India for the reported breach are completely misleading. The Government is committed to protect the fundamental rights of citizens, including the right to privacy. The Government operates strictly as per provisions of law and laid down protocols. There are adequate provisions in the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 to deal with hacking, spyware etc.”
This is nearly the same response that the government gave soon after the story first emerged that dozens of Indians had been targeted by Pegasus, an extremely expensive software that takes over an entire phone potentially through as little as a missed call. The targets, or at least the ones that we know of, seemed to overwhelmingly work in the field of human rights, with some being considered “anti-national” by the current BJP-run government.
Based on the prohibitive cost of the software and the names of those targeted, the needle of suspicion clearly seemed to point at the government, whether Union or state. When first asked about this also, the Union government replied with a statement saying agencies have a well-established protocol for interception of conversations in India for clearly stated reasons in the national interest. He then went on to bring up alleged surveillance cases dating back to the previous government’s tenure.
Crucially whether it was this initial answer, the more recent one in the Lok Sabha and the BJP MPs attempt to prevent a Parliamentary committee from examining the issue, one thing has become clear: the Indian government is not going to categorically deny using spyware against its own citizens or anyone else.
This is deeply disturbing, because the obvious inference one could draw from the government’s refusal to give a categorical answer is that it is indeed using spyware. Of course, there is no certainty either way, but if the government has not relied on Pegasus or indeed any other spyware, why wouldn’t it say so?
Resorting to hacks to spy on its own citizens would not be unexpected from this government, or indeed a number of states run by the party, which, after all, was the same that argued that Indians do not have a fundamental right to privacy. This government had also promised a personal data protection law and a surveillance framework, none of which are in place currently, a reflection of its priorities when it comes to the rights of its citizens.
With this in mind, it is heartening to note that despite the BJP obstruction, the Parliamentary panel will indeed look into the matter. Parliamentary and judicial oversight are the only ways the excesses of the executive can be curbed, especially when the government offers noncommittal responses to the media and the public.
Unless the government says otherwise, it should be assumed that it was making use of the WhatsApp spyware, and if that is indeed the case, the need for urgent surveillance reform with clear systems of oversight from both the legislature and the judiciary is even more necessary.