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JPC Report on Personal Data Protection Bill submitted to Lok Sabha speaker: Meenakshi Lekhi

Lekhi also commented on the Pegasus spyware controversy that has caused an uproar in Parliament as the spyware was reportedly used to perpetrate surveillance on Indian journalists, activists, and politicians.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Personal Data Protection Bill has submitted its report to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, chairperson of the committee Meenakshi Lekhi said while accusing Congress of disrupting Parliamentary proceedings over the Pegasus spyware attack controversy. This clears the way for the introduction of the Personal Data Protection Bill in Parliament.

“There is the Joint Committee on Personal Data, and it was a task assigned to me by the Speaker. All the members of Opposition worked in a transparent manner (in the committee). The report was ready but various things such as coronavirus, elections, cabinet reshuffle led to a delay in its adoption. Now, it has been submitted to the Speaker,” Lekhi, an MP from New Delhi said while addressing a Bharatiya Janata Party press conference on Thursday. She added that the Speaker has to appoint someone to oversee “its adoption”.

Why it matters: Since the Puttaswamy judgement in 2017 at the Supreme Court of India, the government has been under an obligation to pass a legislation to protect Indians’ personal data. Steps like a data protection regulator, localisation requirements for data, and other aspects of the bill have been closely watched by the industry for years. Even as uncertainty looms over the current contours of the bill, data breaches continue to be regularly reported, with companies facing little to no consequences for such incidents.

“Indian government is serious about data protection and data protection will become the law of the land. And this (disruptions in the Parliament) is directly connected with that,” Lekhi said. Earlier, before the beginning of the ongoing Monsoon Session, Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla had said that the JPC would not get any extension to submit its report. “Most of the work of the Committee is over. Now, a new chairperson has to be nominated. I hope this will not affect submission of report. No further time will be given,” Birla had reportedly said.

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Recently, because of the cabinet reshuffle, five members of the JPC became ministers — Meenakashi Lekhi, Ajay Bhatt, Bhupender Yadav, Ashwini Vaishnaw, and Rajeev Chandrasekhar. Lekhi was the chair of the committee, so a replacement will have to be appointed. On top of the vacant seat that was already there in the committee, these members’ seats on the JPC now stand empty as well.

Pegasus is fake news: Lekhi

Lekhi’s comments about Pegasus were made in regard to the ongoing chaos in Parliament due to reports that Israel-based NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was used to perpetrate surveillance on scores of Indian journalists, activists, and politicians. Reports by The Wire and a few other partner media organisations said that the NSO Group had shortlisted Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and new IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw as potential targets for surveillance, other than confirming that phones belonging to personalities such as election strategist Prashant Kishor had been infected with the same.

“Fact is that, this story which is floating around about Pegasus is a fake story. That fact is also that Amnesty has denied that the list which is circulating is not an actual list, that it’s only indicative of something,” Lekhi said while slamming the Congress and Trinamool Congress for disrupting Parliament proceedings over the same issue. She termed the reports on the Pegasus Project as “concocted, fabricated, evidence-less”.

Lekhi was referring to a statement Amnesty had given to a Hebrew channel, which was translated into English by a cyber journalist Kim Zetter. According to Zetter, Amnesty reportedly had said the list of numbers that were leaked were “numbers marked as of interest to NSO customers” and that this meant that the “list isn’t specifically a list of people who were spied on”.

These comments made on Twitter were quickly captured by media organisations, including Indian mediahouses who ran stories with the headline “Amnesty says never claimed leaked phone numbers were of NSO Pegasus Spyware List”.

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As these statements boiled over, Amnesty International on Thursday evening issued a statement saying that it “categorically stands by the findings of Pegasus Project” in response to “false allegations on social media and inaccurate media stories in relation” to the project.

The statement read, “Amnesty International categorically stands by the findings of the Pegasus Project, and that the data is irrefutably linked to potential targets of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. The false rumours being pushed on social media are intended to distract from the widespread unlawful targeting of journalists, activists and others that the Pegasus Project has revealed.”

Zetter too issued a clarification —

Lekhi did not make a mention of the clarification by Amnesty International in her half-hour press conference.

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