The Home Ministry has neither confirmed nor denied whether it purchased the Pegasus malware, in response to an RTI query. “It is informed that no such information is available with the undersigned CPIO”, says the response from the Cyber and Information Security Division of the Home Ministry. The RTI query was filed by Saurav Das, a Puducherry-based member of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, on October 23.
What do we make of the reply? The reply is actually a non-answer. S.K. Bhalla, the CPIO who signed the response, claims that he doesn’t have the information, not that the department or the ministry does not. “The officer played safe on his part,” said Das. Also, usually in RTI responses, if a particular ministry or department is not the appropriate authority, the RTI request is transferred. That hasn’t happened in this case.
When was the response received? October 31, 2019, two days after WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against NSO Group, and a day after Carl Woog, WhatsApp’s director, confirmed that about two dozen Indian activists and lawyers had been targeted by Pegasus.
Is the timing of the reply suspect? As per Das, his other RTI requests to the Ministry of Home Affairs have taken the usual 30 days. The speed with which he received a reply to this RTI was anomalous. “I read news about Pegasus in India yesterday morning and got a message some time later that my RTI had been disposed off. … They don’t reply within such a short span of time,” he said.
Why did Das file the RTI? “It was a random though on Pegasus. I was watching a documentary on Saudi Arabia, PBS Frontline’s documentary on Jamal Khashoggi, and it had a section on Pegasus. I had a random thought that given everything that is happening in India, could the Indian government be also using it? I prepared a questionnaire and filed an RTI,” Das told MediaNama. Das will appeal the decision.