IT Minister, Featured in Pegasus List Himself, Slams Snooping Story in Lok Sabha

Alongside Ashwini Vaishnaw, the name of Minister of State Prahlad Patel has also surfaced under 'Pegasus Project'.

3 min read

Video Producer: Shohini Bose
Video Editor: Sandeep Suman

Soon after IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw on Monday, 19 July, said in the Lok Sabha that the Pegasus Project is an attempt to malign India’s “democracy and its well-established institutions”, a report published by The Wire revealed that phone numbers linked to him were among the many listed as potential targets for surveillance.

According to The Wire’s report, the newly appointed minister may have been “targeted for possible surveillance” in 2017. Along with his numbers and that of his wife, the numbers of his associates also figure in the list, the report said.

Alongside Vaishnaw, the name of Prahlad Singh Patel, MoS for Ministry of Jal Shakti, has also surfaced under the 'Pegasus Project'.

The IT minister has not responded to the news portal regarding his phone number featuring in the list.


What Vaishnaw Said in Lok Sabha on Monday

Bringing up the Pegasus spyware controversy in the Lower House on Monday, Vaishnaw called it a “highly sensational story” around which “many over-the-top allegations” were made.

“The press reports appeared a day before the Monsoon Session of Parliament. This can't be a coincidence… In the past, similar claims were made regarding use of Pegasus on WhatsApp. Those reports had no factual basis and were denied by all parties. Press reports of 18 July 2021 also appear to be an attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions.”
IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw in Lok Sabha, as quoted by ANI

Pointing out to the contents of the report, Vaishnaw said the report itself clarifies that presence of a number in the list doesn’t amount to snooping.

“Any form of illegal surveillance isn't possible with checks and balances in our laws, and robust institutions. In India, there's a well-established procedure through which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out for the purpose of national security… Requests for lawful interceptions of electronic communication are made as per relevant rules, under provisions of Section 5(2) of Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 and Section 69 of Information Technology Act, 2000. Each case of interception is approved by the competent authority,” he was further quoted as saying by ANI in the Lower House on Monday.

“When we look at this issue through the prism of logic, it clearly emerges that there is no substance, whatsoever, behind this sensationalism,” Vaishnaw added.

According to a report by The Wire, the personal secretary to former Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia had also been listed as a potential target for surveillance, at the time when Scindia was in office.

Sanjay Kachroo, who had worked as an officer on special duty (OSD) for Smriti Irani during her initial years in the Cabinet, had also been listed as a potential target. Former Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader, Pravin Togadia, who is conjectured to have a long-running animosity with Modi, was reportedly named in the list as well.

What Does the Report Say?

A report published by The Wire on Sunday, 18 July, revealed that Israel-made spyware Pegasus was believed to have been used to snoop on at least 300 Indian phone numbers, including those of over 40 senior journalists, Opposition leaders, government officials, and rights activists.

According to the news report, while the presence of the numbers in the list does not confirm that the device was 'infected with Pegasus or subject to an attempted hack', the Pegasus Project believes that the list included potential targets who might have been identified in advance for possible surveillance attempts.

According to The Wire, an independent forensic analysis of 10 Indian phones from the list showed that they were either hacked or attempted to have been hacked by Pegasus.

The media organisations working together were able to identify the owners of over 1,571 numbers spread across at least 10 countries and forensic analysis of some of the devices showed the presence of Pegasus.

The parent company of the spyware NSO has denied that the leaked list was linked in any way to the functioning of its software.

In response to the Pegasus Project, NSO has said that people in the list were not targeted by the governments using Pegasus but were maybe a part of a larger list of numbers that other customers of theirs used for different purposes.

Pegasus, a product of Israeli cyberweapons company NSO Group, was earlier in the news in late 2019 when it was found that spies used the spyware to hack into phones of roughly 1,400 users around the world, including 121 Indians.

(With inputs from The Wire)

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