Pegasus Spying Allegation Made to Malign Govt: IT Min in Lok Sabha

At least 121 Indian citizens are reported to have been affected by Pegasus breach.

3 min read
 WhatsApp has now officially responded to the Ministry of Electronics and IT on the security incident related to the breach by Pegasus malware.

In response to a question in the Lok Sabha on whether the government was aware of the Pegasus spyware being deployed to spy on citizens, the IT Minister responded that while the government was aware of the breach, allegations that the government was using it were made to malign the government of India and was misleading.

MPs Asaduddin Owaisi and Imtiyaz Jaleel had submitted a list of seven questions related to the Pegasus spyware developed by an Israeli company, NSO Group.

Responding in writing, to a question, on whether the “Government has taken cognizance of the reports of alleged use and purchase of the Pegasus spyware by Government agencies”, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad stated, “Some statements have appeared, based on reports in media, regarding this.”

“These attempts to malign the Government of India for the reported breach are completely misleading”, Prasad added. 

Refering to section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2008, Prasad also mentioned that “there are adequate provisions in the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 to deal with hacking, spyware etc.”

On 31 October, The Indian Express had reported 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.

On Tuesday, 19 November, in response to a similar question in Parliament on Pegasus by DMK leader Dayanidhi Maran, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, G Kishan Reddy had made no mention of Pegasus or the NSO group. It had only referred to the government’s powers to “intercept, monitor and decrypt” information based on the provisions of section 69 of the IT Act.

On Wednesday, Prasad’s response echoed Reddy’s reply from the previous day but importantly acknowledged that the “Government has taken note of the fact that a spyware/malware has affected some Whatsapp users.”

NSO Group Used Pegasus to Reach Indians: IT Min

Privacy experts, however, said that the government has ignored the issue of interacting with the NSO Group on accessing the spyware. “It is still evasive on several points. Including a complete absence of any formal request or correspondence either to the NSO Group or the Government of Isreal,” said Apar Gupta, advocate and executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation.

While Prasad’s response does not make clear or elaborate, it appears to accuse the NSO Group of having deployed the spyware. The Israeli company, however, has maintained that it strictly sells licenses to Pegasus only to governments and law enforcement agencies.

“According to WhatsApp, this spyware was developed by an Israel based company, NSO Group, and that it had developed and used Pegasus spyware to attempt to reach mobile phones of a possible number of 1400 users globally that includes 121 users from India,” Prasad’s reply stated.

Law Cited By Govt Is Under Challenge Before SC

On Tuesday, 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 it 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

The powers of government interception under section 69 is currently under challenge by the Internet Freedom Foundation including, M.L. Sharma, Amit Sahni, Mahua Moitra and Shreya Singhal


Owaisi Tears Into Govt Response

Responding to Prasad’s response on Pegasus, Owaisi tore into the written statement claiming that “No express denial of whether a govt agency actually used Pegasus software.”

He followed up with six new questions, including which agency purchased Pegasus and deployed it in India, what action did this agency and other responsible agencies take to investigate this and take action against the perpetrators?

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