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Ahead of IT Committee meeting, Tharoor suggests judicial probe of Pegasus; IFF poses questions

The Committee is slated to meet on July 28 on the subject of ‘Citizen’s data security and privacy’ which gains significance in light of the recent revelations around Pegasus spyware and surveillance. 

Ahead of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology’s meeting next Wednesday, the committee’s chairman Shashi Tharoor in an interview to The Wire said “the best thing would be to appoint a sitting Supreme Court judge to head an independent enquiry” on the matter of the Pegasus exposé.

“I believe that what is essential is that the investigation have the power to summon officials and comments, take evidence, weight the evidence and present a conclusion,” – Tharoor in the interview.

Adding to his statement on a judicial investigation, Tharoor said that, “Since the government itself is the institution of the entity that is accused of having misused Pegasus it cannot be the investigator of its own wrong-doings if there were any.” Tharoor also noted that there was a Commission of Enquiry Act in which a recently retired SC judge can be appointed to head a commission of enquiry.

Why does this matter: Investigations carried out by a consortium of 17 news organisations worldwide last week revealed that 300 Indians have been listed as persons of interest for surveillance by the Israeli firm NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. These potential targets include Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former Karnataka chief ministers HD Kumaraswamy and Siddaramaiah, among other opposition leaders, lawyers, bureaucrats, private sector professionals, activists, journalists, and officials in the Election Commission and Supreme Court.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Tharoor-led committee listed a meeting in its schedule on the Lok Sabha website to discuss ‘Citizen’s data security and privacy’. The meeting is scheduled to take place on July 28 and will involve presentations of evidence from representatives of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), and Ministry of Communications (MoC).

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The Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT has previously initiated similar meetings on the 2019 news reports about the use of Pegasus. Earlier, it was also holding consultations on the Personal Data Protection Bill before the Joint Parliamentary Committee was formed in December 2019.

Activist group poses questions for the committee to ask

In view of the scheduled meeting, the digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) sent a letter to the Committee with a list of questions on the Pegasus surveillance issue directed at representatives from the MHA, MeitY, and MoC:

For the Ministry of Home Affairs

  1. Has the MHA or any agency under the Ministry procured the Pegasus software? What were the financial considerations?
  2. Has the MHA deployed the Pegasus tool? Since hacking is a criminal offense as per Indian law, how is the use of Pegasus being authorised in India?
  3. If such tools have indeed been used, were these surveillance requests issued and reviewed by competent authorities?
  4. If orders for interception and monitoring have been issued, what is the time period for such orders were in force? To which intermediaries have such orders been sent?
  5. Is the MHA contemplating conducting an investigation into possible origins of the alleged attack?
  6. What are the steps that are being taken to ensure that such violations of the fundamental rights of an Indian citizen are not repeated and that the digital safety & security of Indian citizens are not compromised?
  7. Has the MHA sent any questionnaire to the NSO Group and sought specific disclosure from them?

For the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and the Ministry of Communication:

  1. Were the MeitY and/or MoC or any agency under the ministries involved in the procurement of Pegasus by the MHA and/or any other agency/authority of the Government of India?
  2. Has the MeitY and/or MoC deployed the Pegasus tool? Since hacking is a criminal offense as per Indian law, how is the use of Pegasus being authorised in India?
  3. If such tools have indeed been used, were these surveillance requests issued and reviewed by competent authorities?
  4. If orders for interception and monitoring have been issued, what is the time period for which such orders were in force? To which intermediaries have such orders been sent?
  5. Is the CERT-IN contemplating conducting an investigation into possible origins of the alleged attack?
  6. What are the steps that are being taken to ensure that such violations of the fundamental rights of an Indian citizen are not repeated and that the digital safety & security of Indian citizens are not compromised?
  7. Has the MHA sent any questionnaire to the NSO Group and sought specific disclosure from them?

Opposition leaders react to the Pegasus exposé

Since the Pegasus exposé, the Parliament’s Monsoon session, which began on Monday, has been chaotic with opposition members up in arms about allegations of surveillance.

  • Congress MP Rahul Gandhi on Friday said that the use of Pegasus spyware by an Indian NSO client amounted to “treason”.
  • On Friday, TMC MP Shantanu Sen was reportedly suspended for the rest of the monsoon session after an altercation had taken place between him and other BJP MPs soon after IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw read out his statement on Pegasus spyware expose in the Rajya Sabha the previous day. The MP had earlier said that he would protest on the issue throughout the Monsoon session.
  • On Wednesday, Lok Sabha MP Thol. Thirumavalavan issued a statement urging the central government to order an independent judicial investigation in this regard.
  • On Tuesday, Standing Committee chairman Shashi Tharoor told news agency ANI that the Pegasus Project media report issue was a matter of serious national security concern and the government needs to give an explanation on it.
  • On Monday the Congress had held a press conference with Spokesperson Randeep Surjewala, Leader of Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge, and Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury present. It said that parliamentary and legal recourses by a united Opposition were being considered by the party.
  • Earlier on Sunday, hours after the Pegasus news reports were published, AIMIM MP Asaduddin Owaisi had tweeted, asking the government to clarify if it had purchased the spyware and who were its targets.

More reading on Pegasus

Written By

I cover health and education technology for MediaNama. Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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