Following reports claiming that phones of over 40 Indian journalists were hacked through Pegasus – a spying software developed by Israel's NSO – former Union Minister and the Chairperson of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, Shashi Tharoor has demanded a independent probe into the matter.
In an exclusive interview with The Quint, Dr Tharoor said, "It is becoming clear that perhaps there is a need for an independent enquiry headed by a Supreme Court judge who would have the power not just to summon witnesses, but also to weigh the evidence in a judicial manner."
What do these allegations mean?
It is a matter of concern because obviously in our country, we are a democracy, there is freedom of expression, you don't expect the government to be interfering with journalists doing their duty. Second, we know that apparently more details are scheduled to emerge tomorrow in which politicians, ministers and even constitutional authorities, also seem to have been surveilled. This raises some serious questions about how the people who deployed the software were operating. I don't know if the government has acknowledged any responsibility for doing so. NSO, that sells the software, claims they only sell it to vetted governments. So, the question that comes up is whether the government of India did this or whether a foreign government is tapping Indian phones.
Under what circumstances can snooping be permitted?
The exceptions are of national security, sovereignty of India, relations with friendly states, the usual stuff we've seen, even going up to Article 19 (1) of the constitution. Those exceptions are in any case a formal procedure under which the Home Secretary with a committee has to approve this and then within a certain number of months that has to go before a review committee and then the surveillance can continue for more than two years. Explicitly, under section 43 of the act, hacking is expressly forbidden. So, if Pegasus was deployed on the phones of journalists and so on, that almost certainly would be illegal. And if that's the case, consequences should follow.
How will the Standing Committee on IT approach this?
We've had discussions on this when the Pegasus story broke two years ago for the first time and the Citizen's lab in Toronto notified some people in India that their phones may have been compromised. Those people wrote to me and I summoned some representatives of the victims as well as the ministries concerned –Home, IT and so on.
No one was prepared to concede that they had actually deployed this software even under the official national security exemptions that could be permitted. So, we had kind-of reached a dead-end there. This is now a fresh bit of evidence. I think it's becoming increasingly clear that there is a case for an independent enquiry.