West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday said that she has taped over her phone’s camera to avoid getting spied upon amid reports about the illegal surveillance using Pegasus spyware, reported India Today.

“I have plastered my phone because they tap everything, be it video or audio,” said Mamata Banerjee while showing her phone, where the camera was covered with tape.

Banerjee accused the Bharatiya Janata Party of trying to turn India from a democracy into a “surveillance state”, and urged all Opposition leaders to unite against the saffron party, reported NDTV. Banerjee said that she cannot talk to the Opposition leaders now as she has covered her phone. The chief minister said that she would go to Delhi on July 27 or July 28 and added that she was available for a meeting with Opposition leaders.

“Three things make democracy – media, judiciary and the Election Commission – and Pegasus has captured all three,” said the chief minister. Banerjee’s nephew and Trinamool Congress leader Abhishek Banerjee is among the potential targets of surveillance.

Pegasus is dangerous and ferocious,” the chief minister said, reported ANI. “You are paying too much money for spying. BJP has bulldozed federal structure.”

Banerjee added that she was not attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally. “But you [Modi] and may be the home minister [Amit Shah]...you are deploying agencies against opposition leaders,” she alleged. “You are misusing the agencies.”

She said that the Trinamool Congress won the recently-concluded election in the state despite all odds and fought “against money, muscle, mafia power and all agencies”.

Citing her electoral slogan used in the run-up to the Assembly elections, she said that “Khela” (game) will now happen in all states till the BJP is ousted from the country, reported The Times of India.

Chhattisgarh CM forms panel to investigate allegations

Meanwhile, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel said that his government has formed a committee to investigate the Pegasus surveillance allegations, reported ANI.

Baghel claimed he has information that officials from Israeli company NSO Group, which sells Pegasus, met former Chief Minister Raman Singh. He asked Singh to reveal details of the deal he had made with the company.

“Since they [NSO Group] say they only deal with governments, the Government of India should tell if they made a deal with them or not?” he asked. “They’re snooping on Opposition leaders, journalists and even ministers. What was the purpose? It should be probed.”

Former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister and Congress leader Kamal Nath alleged that these surveillances began after Modi visited Israel in July 2017. “The issue of Pegasus will gain momentum in the next 15 days,” he added.

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 Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology has said that it 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.

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