The Centre said on Sunday that there was “no unauthorised interception” by the Union government agencies amid reports that phones numbers of Indian ministers, Opposition politicians, journalists, activists and others were found on a leaked database of targets for reportedly hacking them using Pegasus software, reported NDTV.
“The allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people have no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever,” the Centre said in a statement.
The Centre said that similar claims were earlier made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp by the government, adding that those reports had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including WhatsApp in the Supreme Court.
“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,” it said.
The leaks raise questions about cyber surveillance of Indian citizens. Forensic tests have revealed that at least some of those named on the list had their phones hacked by the spyware that Israeli company NSO Group says it only sells to “vetted governments”, reported The Wire.
The leaked list, featuring more than 50,000 phone numbers “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens”, was accessed by Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, which shared it with 17 news organisations as part of the Pegasus Project.
According to The Wire, which focused on the Indian portion of the list, “the numbers of those in the database include over 40 journalists, three major opposition figures, one constitutional authority, two serving ministers in the Narendra Modi government, current and former heads and officials of security organisations and scores of businesspersons”.
The Wire revealed the names of dozens of journalists and activists on the list, including its own founder-editors Siddharth Vardarajan and MK Venu, The Hindu’s Vijaita Singh, the Hindustan Times’ Shishir Gupta, as well as scholars and activists on the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners and relatives, lawyers and friends of those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case and the accused themselves.
The Wire added that more names would be revealed over the next few days.
Read the Centre’s full statement
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 organizations 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 interceptions 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.