“And, Sir, to the best of my knowledge, no unauthorised interception has been done,” IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad informed the Rajya Sabha on November 28, wrapping another unsatisfying chapter in the saga of “Did the Indian government purchase Israeli spyware Pegasus to spy on its citizens?”. Despite being asked by at least five different MPs during the debate, Prasad did not categorically confirm or deny whether the government purchased the spyware.
This non-answer, similar to the one given to MP Dayanidhi Maran on November 19 in Lok Sabha, suggests that Pegasus was indeed purchased by the Indian government to carry out “lawful” interception. The repeated lack of categorical denial by the government, both by MeitY and Ministry of Home Affairs, is concerning.
Sticking to the script, Prasad cited Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, Section 5 of the Telegraph Act and the standard operating procedure under which people can be legally surveilled by the state. Interception can be authorised by the Home Secretary in case of the central government, and the State Home Secretary in the case of a state government.
Government’s stance on Pegasus-WhatsApp Row
CERT-In intends to audit WhatsApp’s systems: Prasad revealed to Rajya Sabha that on November 9, CERT-In (Indian Computer Emergency Response Team) wrote to WhatsApp, seeking more information, including a need to conduct an audit and inspection of WhatsApp’s security systems and processes.
Government finally sent a notice to the NSO Group on November 26: A number of parliamentarians had asked during the debate why a formal government notice had not been sent to the Israeli spyware company that developed Pegasus. Prasad revealed that a notice had indeed been sent to NSO Group on November 26.
Government will not become party to the lawsuit in California: Prasad said that the government of India did not wish to “join a private battle between two companies”. MP P. Wilson (DMK) asked Prasad if the government intended to implead itself in the lawsuit in California.
Central government not responsible for what state governments do: During the debate, Congress MP Digvijaya Singh had asked for details of the state governments, specifically Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, and police departments that had met the NSO Group to purchase Pegasus, and how many of these were in BJP-ruled states. Prasad replied, “They are asking me over and over again if we [the government] has purchased Pegasus. We have said repeatedly that there is a standard operating procedure. Are we [the central government] responsible for what the state governments do?”
Coincidence that critics of Modi government were targeted: Prasad called it a coincidence and said, “Not even a single FIR has been filed till date, as per the intimation to us. No complaint is made in the IT Ministry till date by anyone.”
“We are very clear: that whoever has a complaint, file an FIR, take ₹5 lakh in damages, send someone to jail for 3 years [referring to Section 66 of the IT Act]. Indian government will provide full support in such an inquiry. But the government should not be involved in any fishing expedition.” — Ravi Shankar Prasad
Link between global demands against E2E encryption and WhatsApp’s lawsuit against NSO? Prasad suggested a correlation, if not a causation, between demands from India, USA, UK and Australia against end-to-end encryption and WhatsApp’s lawsuit against NSO Group. “It is a too much of a coincidence that when the Government of India is pressing for traceability of offensive messages, America, Australia and England are joining that battle. Then suddenly a case is filed. I don’t now whether it was by design or it was by accident or it was coincidence, I will not make any judgment. But this happened,” he said.
Read our extensive coverage on the WhatsApp-Pegasus-NSO row here.