Former home secretary GK Pillai told The Quint on Friday, 1 November, that he is aware that Israeli tech firm NSO had been operating in India – and that it had sold spying software to private firms and individuals in the country.
He also confirmed that Indian government agencies have bought spyware in the past from private foreign tech firms like NSO. In fact, he said, “it is quite common.”
After WhatsApp confirmed that NSO-made Pegasus spyware had been used to hack 1,400 people globally including at least two dozen Indian activists and human rights lawyers, NSO told The Quint that “The sole purpose of NSO is to provide technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”
So did the Indian government purchase Pegasus from NSO to snoop on Indian citizens? Can this be used for legal surveillance, and how would that work?
“Surveillance is done only when requisition is made to the home secretary through intelligence reports and the he/she gives a clearance for surveillance. State governments can also authorise their own police sources to do surveillance. The number of people surveilled by different states is much larger than that done by central governments.”GK Pillai, Former Home Secretary
Pillai says that during his tenure (2009-2011), around 4,000-8,000 individuals and entities were surveilled by the central government. He was the home secretary when P Chidambaram was appointed Union Home Minister in the UPA-2 government.
Elaborating on the protocol to be followed to conduct surveillance on someone, he said,
“If any intelligence agency wants to surveil an individual or entity, they need to specify for how many days they need permission and justify the number of days for the same. After completion of the said number of days, they have to come back and tell the home secretary if they need an extension.”GK Pillai
Pillai also said that it is not only the central government that authorises surveillance. In fact, state governments authorise surveillance on a much larger scale based on information they get from intelligence sources. “For example, if Maharashtra feels some activists pose threats to them, their government agencies can use any software that is available with them to monitor those individuals.”
‘If Govt Knew NSO, Other Spyware Firms Operated in India, Who Monitored it?'
Cyber law expert Raman Jit Chima said if the Indian government knew that a spyware firm like NSO was operating in India, it was important to know what steps it took to supervise their activities or ensure that there wasn’t any breach of privacy.
This is particularly important in light of the fact that the government sometimes purchases spyware and hands it over to a third party, which then monitors an individual and provides the information to the government, a former Intelligence official told The Quint.
Chima noted that there are supposed to be government restrictions on the sale of surveillance equipment, which came about as a result of incidents involving former finance minister Arun Jaitley and Union Minister Nitin Gadkari.
Chima further raises the question, "Has the Union home secretary ever seen it worthy to ask the states what they are doing? And if they have, then ultimately the buck stops with the central government.”