The Ministry of Defence on Monday told Rajya Sabha that it has “not had any transaction with NSO Group Technologies” on a question whether the Indian government had been associated with the Israeli surveillance firm. The company’s spyware, Pegasus, is only licensed to vetted governments.
The defence ministry’s response could be considered as the government’s first direct reply to repeated questions from the Opposition on whether the administration used the Pegasus spyware sold by Israel’s NSO Group to spy on politicians, activists and journalists. Among the potential targets of the spyware in India are Bharatiya Janata Party leaders currently serving as Union ministers and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, a Supreme Court judge and many journalists.
The alleged misuse of the Pegasus spyware was revealed in July when Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International accessed a database featuring more than 50,000 phone numbers “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens”.
They shared the list with Indian news website The Wire and 16 other media organisations as part of the Pegasus Project. The media organisations found that heads of states, activists and journalists across the world were part of the database which reflected potential targets of surveillance using Pegasus.
The Supreme Court had on Thursday said that allegations about Indian central agencies using Pegasus spyware, if correct, were serious. While hearing petitions seeking an investigation into the surveillance accusations, the Supreme Court said the truth had to come out.
Several petitions have been filed to investigate the allegations of surveillance against the Indian government.
Former Union minister Yashwant Sinha on Thursday filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking an inquiry, saying that it should be monitored by the court and a mechanism should be set up to oversee any surveillance-related request made by and to any ministry or government agency.
The pleas have also been filed on the matter by the Editors Guild of India, former editor of The Hindu N Ram and Asian College of Journalism Chairperson Sashi Kumar, Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas and advocate ML Sharma.
On July 19, Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who happens to be on the list of potential targets of the spyware, told Parliament that illegal surveillance was not possible in India.