The union government was posed with a seven-part question on whether it used the malicious Israeli spyware Pegasus to tap citizens’ phones in India. In the Lok Sabha on Tuesday, the government gave one generic response – that it had the power to intercept, monitor and decrypt any information in the interest of the country.
However, the government did not explicitly specify whether Pegasus was used or not used to spy on citizens and politicians in India, as alleged by the opposition.
The written response was given by Minister of State for Home Affairs G Kishan Reddy to a question posed by DMK MP Dayanidhi Maran.
Dayanidhi Maran had asked if the union government taps WhatsApp calls and messages, the protocol followed if this was being done, if it uses the malicious software Pegasus, and if the government taps messages on other similar platforms as well. Maran’s question in Lok Sabha was categorised as unstarred, which means that only needs a written reply and is not taken up for discussion in the Lok Sabha.
The government, in its response, cited two laws, under which it has the power to decrypt any kind of information.
The first is Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, which, according to the response, “empowers the Central Government or a State Government to intercept, monitor or decrypt or cause to be intercepted or monitored or decrypted any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above or for investigation of any offence.”
The government also cited Section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, which authorises specific individuals to view messages in the case of a public emergency or in the interest of public safety.
Every case that can be snooped upon is authorised by the Union Home Secretary in case of the union government and by the concerned state Home Secretary in case the matter pertains to a specific state, the government response stated, citing the law.
The government also stated that multiple agencies can be authorised by a competent authority to intercept and decrypt in India — Intelligence Bureau, Narcotics Control Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, Central Board of Direct Taxes, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Central Bureau of Investigation, National Investigation Agency, Cabinet Secretariat (RAW), Directorate of Signal Intelligence (For service areas of Jammu & Kashmir, North East and Assam), and Delhi’s Commissioner of Police.
While this answer stated that no agency is given blanket permission to monitor messages and requires permission for each case, it does not explicitly touch upon the questions posed by Maran pertaining to Pegasus at all.
Maran’s question comes a month after it was revealed that the Israeli spyware Pegasus was used to infect about 1,400 specifically-targeted devices. It was later reported that several Indian activists and lawyers were snooped on using Pegasus. Facebook-owned WhatsApp has sued the NSO Group, an Israeli tech company, in an American federal court for using WhatsApp to conduct surveillance.
(Published in an arrangement with The News Minute)