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IT Ministry says no budget for purchasing surveillance software but answer vanishes from Lok Sabha’s website

Previously, the Defence Ministry had stated that it had no dealings with the Pegasus-proprietor NSO Group; however, this does not extend to other government ministries and departments.  

“Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has not allocated any budget to purchase any such software,” said Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar in response to a parliamentary question by Lok Sabha MP Karti Chidambaram. A screenshot of the question was shared by Chidambaram in a tweet.

The Congress MP had enquired whether MeitY had allocated any budget “to purchase software to intercept, monitor or decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource, as permitted under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act”.  He had also asked if the State had floated any global tenders for the purchase of such software.

Why it matters? Whenever questioned, the government has put out taciturn responses on whether it has purchased Pegasus from the Israeli firm. It has also been evasive by neither confirming nor denying its involvement in ordering surveillance on Indian citizens via Pegasus. Moreover, the government has ignored every attempt by opposition members to force a debate in Parliament concerning allegations emerging out of the Pegasus Project’s investigation.

Background: The Pegasus Project is a collaboration among 17 news organisations led by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International. Their investigation accessed a data leak that revealed more than 50,000 phone numbers as either targets or potential targets of snooping by several governments with the help of Pegasus spyware. NSO Group, the developer behind Pegasus, clarified that the spyware is sold only to governments and its agencies for use against terrorists and criminals. However, these names were revealed to be engaged in journalism, activism, politics, business, bureaucracy, etc.

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Why was the answer taken down from Lok Sabha’s official website?

The question which was to be taken up on August 11 was removed from the website shortly after being uploaded on Wednesday, as per a tweet by Karti Chidambaram.

His subsequent tweet also draws attention to the fact that the response only speaks for MeitY and not for the entirety of the Indian government and its ministries.

Lok Sabha Secretariat rejected the charge of wrongdoing by clearing that there were no questions uploaded on Wednesday as the lower house was adjourned sine die after its meeting at 11 am, according to a report in The Print.

“Since the question hour could not be taken up, as per rules all questions listed today are considered as lapsed,” an anonymous official informed the website.

Government’s parliamentary statements on Pegasus in 2021

March 2021: MeitY said that “no such information is available” in response to a parliamentary question by Lok Sabha MPs Maneka Gandhi and Dr. T. Sumathy on the presence of surveillance spyware in the country and whether the government had launched an investigation into the matter.

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July 2021: IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw reiterated former IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s comments in 2019 declaring that “time-tested procedures of our country are well-established to ensure that unauthorised surveillance cannot occur”.

August 2021: Rajya Sabha MP Binoy Vishwam’s parliamentary question on Pegasus to the external affairs ministry is blocked by the government, calling the matter sub judice as it is being heard by the Supreme Court of India and claiming that Rajya Sabha rules prevent members from asking for information that is under adjudication by a court of law.

It must be noted that the government has maintained an inconsistent stand on dealing with Pegasus-related questions in the Parliament. MeitY and the Ministry of Defence have responded to questions on Pegasus but the government blocked a question asking the external affairs ministry if it had entered into an MoU with the NSO Group, said a report in The Wire.

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