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Ruckus in Parliament: MP snatches IT Minister’s statement on Pegasus spyware controversy

Parliament
Credit: Aditi Agrawal

Although Ashwini Vaishnaw never got to address Rajya Sabha, the minister did not categorically deny the use of Pegasus spyware in his previous address to the Lok Sabha. 

Trinamool Congress MP Shantanu Sen on Thursday snatched papers from IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw that contained his statement on the Pegasus exposé in Rajya Sabha shortly after the Upper House was adjourned, according to news reports.

During a broadcast, NDTV correspondent Arvind Gunasekar said that Vaishnaw decided to table his statement as he was unable to read it because of protests from the Opposition. Subsequently, due to the disruption, the proceedings were adjourned, following which the TMC MP tried to snatch the papers from Vaishnaw.

Why this matters? Tensions have been high between the government and opposition parties since the start of the Parliament’s monsoon session on Monday, following reports that 300 verified Indian numbers were listed for potential surveillance using the NSO Group’s Pegasus Spyware. This has led to disrupted proceedings of Parliament, with the Rajya Sabha being adjourned three times in one day. There were similar disruptions in the Lok Sabha as well. Many members of the opposition have asked for a debate and an investigation into the use of the Pegasus spyware to reportedly target opposition leaders such as Rahul Gandhi as well as several Indian politicians, activists, and journalists.

Since the events took place after the House was adjourned, there is no Rajya Sabha TV footage of the incident. However, during a BJP press conference held shortly after the parliamentary session, Minister of State (MoS) in the Ministry of External Affairs Meenakshi Lekhi confirmed that an MP had snatched the papers from “a minister who was making a statement”. The TMC also confirmed the incident at its press conference but alleged that Minister of Civil Aviation Hardeep Singh Puri had subsequently been abusive and “almost assaulted” Sen.

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Ashwini Vaishnaw’s Rajya Sabha statement

Vaishnaw’s statement, released by the Press Information Bureau, is the exact same one as his earlier statement in the Lok Sabha. In his Lok Sabha address, Vaishnaw had asserted that because of India’s time-tested procedures “unauthorised surveillance cannot take place.”

“Hon’ble speaker sir in conclusion I humbly submit that the publishers of the report states that it cannot say that the numbers in the published list were under surveillance. Second, the company whose technology was alleged used has denied these claims out rightly and the time tested procedures of our country are well-established to ensure that unauthorised surveillance cannot occur.” — IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw in Lok Sabha.

The Minister had earlier rubbished media reports on the use of the Pegasus Spyware, saying that they were sensational and “had no basis whatsoever.” However, he has still not categorically denied the spyware’s purchase or usage by the government.

A history of obfuscation by the government

In November 2019, sitting IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had also issued vague statements and dithered around the Pegasus issue. Prasad had said that “there was no unauthorised surveillance” during a debate on the use of Pegasus in the Rajya Sabha.

In March 2020, a Rajya Sabha MP had asked the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) in Parliament, whether it had conducted an audit into WhatsApp’s systems as claimed in 2019. In response, the government did not say yes or no; instead, the government said that it had “sought submission of information from Whatsapp including discussing the need to conduct an audit of Whatsapp’s security systems and processes.”

In March 2021 Lok Sabha MP Maneka Gandhi and Dr. T. Sumathy (a) Thamizhachi Thangapandian asked if MeitY had any information on Pegasus spyware’s use or purchase in India to which MeitY said that it had no information on the matter.

NSO responds to Pegasus Project reports

Israeli firm NSO has in a series of statements and interviews to the media refuted the revelations put forth by the Pegasus Project.

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It has said that-

  • Save for a few cases, NSO does not have any information on who its clients surveil.
  • Journalists, activists, and civil society organisations are strictly off-limits for use of its spyware.
  • The database of numbers from which targets are being identified and reported is part of publicly available documents.
  • NSO’s spyware was not related to death of Jamal Khashoggi and was not used to spy on him or his family.
  • NSO is considering a defamation lawsuit.
  • In an interview, NSO CEO Shalev Hulio said that he will shut down Pegasus if a better alternative is found ‘to get criminals, get terrorists, get information from a pedophile’.
  • In an interview, NSO co-founder Omri Lavie told Washington Post that while the work is horrible, “somebody has to do the dirty work.”

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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