Why IT Minister Vaishnaw's Dismissal of 'Pegasus' Reports Is Troubling
The government will have to find better clarifications and assurances than the Vaishnaw statement.
Information and Technology minister Ashwini Vaishnaw dismissed recent reports of government’s surveillance of some ministers, journalists, activists and others using the Israeli company NSO’s Pegasus software. In his statement to the Lok Sabha on July 19, Vaishnaw principally relied on two arguments. Both of them are troubling.
The First Argument
Vaishnaw stated 'the company whose technology was allegedly used has denied these claims outrightly'.
In its statement on the use of the Pegasus programme by governments to snoop on journalists and others in violation of their rights NSO claimed,“We would like to emphasise that NSO sells its technologies to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments for the sole purpose of saving lives through preventing crime and terror acts. NSO does not operate the system and has no visibility to the data."
NSO has therefore categorically stressed that it is only a technology supplier and the actual operations are carried out by the buyers of its technologies.
Its claim that the data is not 'visible' to it means that even if the information is stored on its servers, it does not have access to it.
In such a situation it logically follows that once NSO has supplied technology to a 'vetted' government it would have no idea of the actual purpose for which it is being used.
in view of its categorical assertion, it is not open to NSO to claim that its technology is being used solely for the purpose it may have supplied it for. The logical infirmity in its argument is so apparent that it makes it very surprising that Vaishnaw decided to rely on it to defend the government.
The Second Argument
The other argument Vaishnaw used is 'the publisher of the report states that it cannot say if the numbers in the published list were under surveillance'.
It is true there is no evidence that the overwhelming number of phones in the list were actually put under surveillance but the list in itself is embarrassing in the context of India’s domestic politics and governance. This is especially because government has not denied that it did not purchase surveillance technologies from NSO and that this includes Pegasus.
Need for Surveillance Technologies
At this stage an important observation has to be made.
Intelligence agencies have to develop and acquire surveillance technologies to combat both external and internal threats.
It is preferable if these technologies are developed indigenously for that would ensure that external adversaries do not know Indian surveillance capabilities. If an external power has such information, it can take measures to bypass surveillance systems but if it does not then it obviously cannot do so.
No country wants its surveillance systems and methods to get known.
Hence, it will not surprising if government refuses to confirm if it acquired NSO technologies and to get over the suspicions generated by the current reports through emphasising, as Vaishnaw told Parliament.
“The time-tested processes in our country are well established in our country to ensure that unauthorised surveillance does not take place."
Vaishnav’s bold argument regarding the robustness of India’s official procedures to prevent any misuse of laws, rules and regulations relating to authorised surveillance of communications to prevent terrorism or crime is reassuring.
But it will, in the present climate of mistrust hardly give confidence to the political class, journalists, academia and others. This is especially because of the wide net cast in the surveillance if the lists are to be believed.
It is also likely that these allegations will be refracted by memories of the numerous allegations in the past decades of the tapping of phones of political leaders during the rule of different political parties in the Centre and the states. On all those occasions the opposition levelled charges which parties in power denied. There were also times when such charges were made of snooping on members of the ruling parties too.
Will these reports may an impact on India’s external relations?
It will not do so for all countries engage in clandestine surveillance on each other. This is a fact of international life.
All those engaged in the management of inter-state relations take precautions against surveillance to the best of their abilities.
There is a constant interplay between protection of communications and attempts to break into the communication systems of other countries. This is despite international conventions which seek to ensure the inviolability of diplomatic communications.
These lists will therefore cause no major ripples internationally though reports that prime minister Imran Khan’s phone was targeted may cause some feigned anger in Pakistan.
The issues raised by the lists are serious for the Indian polity. Privacy is a basic right and actions which impact on should always be lawful.
The government will have to find better clarifications and assurances than the Vaishnaw statement. This is for the sake of the polity. This would apply even if these reports are unlikely to impact what will impact the most important coming political event—the Uttar Pradesh elections.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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