Congress MP Shashi Tharoor on Wednesday alleged that Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla directed him to cancel a meeting of the Parliamentary Panel on Information and Technology while allowing other standing committees to meet. Tharoor’s committee was set to continue its discussions on the WhatsApp security breach.
“For all who were awaiting news of the meeting of the IT Committee, the Speaker asked me this morning to postpone the meeting in view of a 3-line whip issued by BJP to its Rajya Sabha MPs, which would make it impossible for them to attend,” Tharoor, who is the chairman of the committee, wrote on Twitter, adding that he then deferred it to December 13. The BJP had issued a whip to its MPs in Rajya Sabha for the debate on the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
Tharoor said that he specifically asked the Speaker if all committees would cancel their meetings scheduled for Wednesday, and Birla told him that they would. “I am shocked to learn that the other Committees held their meetings & ours was the only one not allowed to meet,” he added. “Does the Govt [government] have something to hide?”
During a two-week period in May, at least 121 Indians were the target of an attempted security breach using the Pegasus WhatsApp spyware. According to the the government, the personal data of at least 20 WhatsApp users was accessed by unidentified hackers. The spyware was developed by an Israeli company that claims that the software was sold to only government agencies. The government, however, has denied its role in the illegal surveillance of the devices.
During the last meeting of the committee, there was high drama following which Tharoor had to intervene and cast his vote to hold discussions on the matter. Of the members, 12 voted against taking up the matter, while 12 favoured a discussion. Finally, Tharoor voted in favour of discussing the contentious matter, as the chairperson gets a second vote in the event of a tie.
While the BJP members of the panel were against taking up the matter, legislators of parties such as Lok Janshakti Party and YSR Congress Party were keen on a discussion. The BJP members of the panel cited “jurisdiction issues” and pointed out that WhatsApp had not given information on the names of those targeted by the breach.
Tharoor has sought a clarification from the Speaker, according to The Hindu.
Pegasus was developed to hack into any phone simply through a missed call, predominantly via WhatsApp, giving the attackers unfettered access to the device, including location data, emails, passwords and even the ability to turn on its microphone and camera. NSO Group has disputed the allegations.
In November, WhatsApp said it had informed government authorities about the privacy breach in May. The tech company reportedly sent the Centre a second alert in September. It attached the two vulnerability notes in its response to a government notice last week.
India is WhatsApp’s biggest market with 400 million users. The platform is globally used by some 1.5 billion people monthly and has often advertised a high level of security, including end-to-end encrypted messages that cannot be deciphered by WhatsApp itself or other third parties.