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Pegasus in Parliament: Defence Ministry claims that it has not had any transactions with NSO Group

Parliament
Credit: Aditi Agrawal

The Pegasus controversy has continued to disrupt the proceedings of both houses with the Opposition demanding a debate and impartial probe into the matter.

“Ministry of Defence has not had any transaction with NSO Group Technologies,” said Minister of State for Defence Ajay Bhatt in a written reply to a question by CPI(M) Rajya Sabha MP Dr. V. Sivadasan.  

As part of the Pegasus Project, a consortium of 17 news organisations led by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, accessed a leaked database containing more than 50,000 phone numbers that had been identified as potential targets of surveillance via Pegasus spyware. Out of this, 300 Indian phone numbers belonging to journalists, activists, politicians, businessmen, constitutional authorities, bureaucrats, among many others were identified. The spyware is developed by the Israeli firm NSO Group which has said that Pegasus is only licensed to governments and its agencies.     

Why it matters? This is the first unequivocal response by a government ministry to a Pegasus-related question. However, the response does not mean that other ministries or departments had no dealings with the Israeli firm. Since the controversy broke, the Indian government has been asked to clarify its relationship with the NSO Group but their statements have been evasiveThe government has neither confirmed nor denied using the spyware categorically. Moreover, it has scuttled every attempt by the Opposition to discuss the issue on the floor of the house. The government has also ignored calls for an impartial investigation into the reported surveillance. 

History of Indian government’s responses on Pegasus spyware so far

October 2019: WhatsApp informs CERT-In that 121 Indian users were targetted by the Pegasus spyware after which the Home Ministry neither confirms nor denies purchasing the spyware according to an ​RTI filed by MediaNama at the time

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November 2019: Former IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad reveals that no unauthorised interception was carried out in a parliamentary discussion on the Pegasus issue.

September 2020: The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) rejects the charge that “the government or any of its agencies have access to the data and voice messages circulated through WhatsApp.”

March 2021: 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, MeitY said that “no such information is available”.

July 2021: IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw parrots NSO Group’s denial saying that “when we look at this issue through the prism of logic, it clearly emerges that there is no substance whatsoever behind this sensationalism”. He reiterated that “time-tested procedures of our country are well-established to ensure that unauthorised surveillance cannot occur”.

August 2021: The government blocks a Rajya Sabha MP’s parliamentary question on Pegasus as it continues to dodge the controversy in parliament by calling the matter subjudice as it is being heard by the Supreme Court of India. 

A summary of the Opposition’s attempts to force a discussion on Pegasus

The revelations of the Pegasus Project coincided with the commencement of the monsoon session of Parliament. Here’s how Opposition MPs reacted to the news reports:

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  • Lok Sabha MP Asaduddin Owaisi called on the government to clarify whether it used the spyware to target specific people named in news reports whereas Aam Aadmi Party MP Sanjay Singh submitted a notice seeking suspension of the scheduled business in Parliament to discuss the Pegasus spyware issue.
  • Congress, along with the Opposition, demanded an investigation at a press conference. Mallikarjun Kharge, senior Congress leader and Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, explained that they will continue to call for a debate. They also insisted on a probe by the Parliamentary Standing Committee or a Joint Parliamentary Committee.
  • Trinamool Congress MP Shantanu Sen snatched IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw’s statement on the Pegasus issue during a ruckus in the Rajya Sabha as the Opposition clamoured for a debate.
  • Congress MP Manickam Tagore filed an adjournment motion in the Lok Sabha to discuss the Pegasus spyware attack and the Indian government’s alleged role in it.
  • Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology led by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor called for a meeting to discuss ‘citizen’s data security and privacy’ with presentations of evidence from representatives of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), and Ministry of Communications (MoC).
  • A question by Rajya Sabha MP Binoy Viswam was disallowed as the matter was “subjudice” given the number of Pegasus-related petitions before the Supreme Court. The question enquired about the government’s dealings with the  NSO Group.

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