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Members of Parliament react to Pegasus spyware controversy amidst Monsoon Session

In light of the developing news story regarding the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware and how it was reportedly used to target several Indian activists, journalists, and politicians between 2017 and 2019, MediaNama reached out to several Indian parliamentarians with queries on the same subject. 

This running report will be updated to reflect all key reactions, statements, or announcements made by Indian parliamentarians from here on:

Why this matters: The revelations that have emerged from the collaborative reporting undertaken by Forbidden Stories and other partnered news outlets have major implications for surveillance and privacy. While India has long been suspected of being a Pegasus buyer, the scale and nature of surveillance it has embarked upon and the profile of the victims, hardly suggest that it has anything to do with national security or organised crime dealings — the two overheads which would mandate the usage of such spyware. The Indian government has not categorically denied spying on the individuals, but did cite surveillance laws and said that “allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever”

Pegasus use is hacking, not tapping: AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi

Hyderabad MP and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi urged the Union government for clarification regarding allegations of Pegasus targeting activists and journalists. Owaisi tweeted, “#Pegasus use is hacking, not “authorised interception” or tapping. Hacking is a crime, whether it’s done by individuals or govt (sic). Govt has to expressly disclose or deny only 2 things: 1 Did you use NSO spyware or not? 2 Did you target specific people named in news reports? 1/2 (sic)”

Pegasus issue will be taken up in next SC meeting: TRS MP Reddy

Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) MP and Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology member Ranjith Reddy said that the controversy over news reports claiming that NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware had targeted journalists, activists, etc., will be taken up in the next meeting of the committee, in response to queries by MediaNama.

“According to reports, this spyware not just hacks your phone but also gets access to your camera and can take pictures. This is very worrisome. If they can go to that extent, how do we preserve a person’s privacy and security?” Reddy told MediaNama. Apart from taking it up in the Standing Committee which has scheduled hearings during the ongoing Monsoon Session of the Parliament, the matter will be raised in Parliament as well, he added.

The Lok Sabha website says that there is a meeting scheduled on July 27 at the Committee Room C of the Parliament House Annexe “to hear the views of the individuals/stakeholders/organisations in connection with the examination of the subject ‘Review of functioning of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC)’ relating to Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in the context of ‘Draft Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2021”. It is likely that the Pegasus issue may be brought up during this meeting.

Suspend Parliament business to discuss Pegasus: AAP MP Sanjay Singh

Aam Aadmi Party MP Sanjay Singh on Monday submitted a notice seeking suspension of the scheduled business in Parliament for discussing the Pegasus spyware issue, a report by the Indian Express said. The 26-day long Monsoon Session of the Parliament began today.

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Will protest Pegasus scam every day this session: AITC’s Santanu Sen

“On behalf of the All India Trinamool Congress, let me ensure you that till 13th of August, we’re going to protest every single second of every working day against the biggest international scam involving billions of dollars, and that is nothing but this Pegasus,” Rajya Sabha MP Santanu Sen said on Tuesday. “It has hacked not only the journalists, not only the opponents, not only the politicians, it has hacked the phone of our volunteer general secretary, learned Member of Parliament Abhishek Bandyopadhyay. We are not going to spare a single second, let me tell you the fact.”

What is Pegasus spyware capable of?

Pegasus “enables law enforcement and intelligence agencies to remotely and covertly extract valuable intelligence from virtually any mobile device,” the NSO Group submitted to the court. “Governments can use Pegasus to intercept messages, take screenshots, or exfiltrate a device’s contacts or history,” it said.

Pegasus, which has been around since at least 2016, can also remotely turn on a phone’s camera and microphone to capture activity in the phone’s vicinity and use GPS functions to track a target’s location and movements, as per its product description.

Read more about it here.

With inputs by Aroon Deep.

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Update (July 20): Added statement by Santanu Sen.

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

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