The Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre on Thursday told the Rajya Sabha that it did not indulge in “unauthorised interception” using the Pegasus spyware that targeted 121 Indians through social messaging platform WhatsApp. Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, responding to a question by Congress MP Anand Sharma, said that “any violation of established procedure, is actionable and as of now, no unauthorised interception has been done”.

Earlier, Congress MP Digvijaya Singh demanded an inquiry by a Joint Parliamentary Committee into the WhatsApp security breach, which he said was a threat to national security and a matter connected with fundamental rights of the people.

“They [the government] should tell the House if people were spied upon,” Singh said. “The government should tell us which journalists, activists were targeted in the breach. This is a violation of right of privacy.”

Singh claimed that top leaders of the government had full information about the Pegasus software and the breach, The Times of India reported. Singh alleged that the government procured Pegasus as part of an “organised plan” and used it illegally.

Prasad said that the government is committed to protecting the digital security of citizens, and is trying hard to make messaging platforms more secure.

The heart of the matter

A Parliamentary standing committee had on November 20 decided to hold discussions on the WhatsApp security breach after a tie-breaker vote from the head of the panel, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor. Before his vote, 12 out of the 25 members of the panel, mainly Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, were against taking up the matter. On the other hand, 12 members, legislators of parties such as Lok Janshakti Party and YSR Congress Party were keen on a discussion.

Last month, reports had revealed that a security breach on WhatsApp through the Pegasus spyware had targeted several Indian journalists, lawyers and activists in a two-week period in May. Pegasus is sold only to government agencies, according to its Israeli owner NSO Group.

On November 19, as many as 17 of the human rights activists, scholars and journalists targeted by the spyware wrote to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, asking it to summon officials from relevant government departments to investigate unauthorised surveillance operations. They urged the panel to ask the officials if they had purchased and deployed Pegasus.