The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology will question officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on July 28 in connection with reports about the illegal surveillance using Pegasus spyware, ANI reported.

Officials from the telecommunications department will also be at the meeting on “citizens’ data security and privacy”. The parliamentary panel is headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor.

On Tuesday, Tharoor said recent revelations on the use of the Pegasus spyware were a matter of national security concern and the government should give an explanation on the matter.

“It has been proved that phones examined in India had an invasion of Pegasus,” he said, according to ANI. “Since this product is only sold to vetted governments, the question arises which government? If the Government of India says they have not done it, some other government did it, then it is a more serious national security concern.”

Pegasus spyware

The Pegasus spyware is developed, marketed and licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group. The company says that it licenses its software only to “vetted governments” and that Pegasus is meant to be targeted at criminals.

On Sunday, a leaked list of 50,000 potential targets of the spyware, “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens” was released. The list 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.

The list includes phone numbers used by at least 40 Indian journalists, Opposition leaders including Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, two Union ministers and virologist Gagandeep Kang. Former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa and an ex-Supreme Court staffer who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment also featured on the list.

It has also been found that phone numbers of the personal secretaries of former Karnataka Chief Ministers HD Kumaraswamy and Siddaramaiah were chosen as potential targets for surveillance in the run up to the collapse of the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government in the state in 2019.

Responding to allegations of snooping, Information and Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who himself happens to be on the list, said that illegal surveillance was not possible in India. The government, however, has not yet categorically denied using the Pegasus spyware on Indian citizens. Notably, NSO has stressed that it sells the spyware only to “vetted governments”.

The meeting of the Tharoor-led panel will be held amid a standoff between the Opposition and Centre on the Pegasus matter, which has resulted in very little proceedings during the first two days of the Monsoon Session of the Parliament.

Previous investigation by the panel

In 2019 too, reports had revealed that the Pegasus spyware was used to breach security on WhatsApp to target several Indian journalists, lawyers and activists in a two-week period in May that year. The government, back then as well, had not a given a direct answer on whether Pegasus was indeed used.

During an investigation on the matter by the Tharoor-led panel, officials of the information and technology ministry had said that 121 people were affected by the spyware, The Hindu reported on Tuesday, citing unidentified sources.

Officials of the ministry and those from the home ministry, however, denied their involvement in snooping through the use of the spyware.

In November 2019, BJP MPs opposed when the standing committee wanted to discuss the matter, according to The Hindu. In a later meeting, the panel met 17 individuals representing a platform called the “Pegasus Targeted Persons”. They included human rights activist Bela Bhatia, Dalit activist and Bhima Koregaon case accused Anand Teltumbde, Jagdalpur Legal Aid group member Shalini Gera, Chattisgarh-based civil rights activist Alok Shukla and human rights activist Jagdish Meshram.

The panel did not submit any report on the consultations.