On Sunday evening, left-wing portal The Wire reported that the names of 40 Indian journalists are there in an alleged leaked list containing people who were under surveillance using Israeli spyware Pegasus. The 40 Indians are apparently among the thousands of people mentioned in the so-called leaked list, which were earlier reported by The Guardian.
Pegasus is developed by Israeli cyberarms firm NSO Group, and reportedly it is only sold to governments. This software can infect iOS and Android devices remotely, and collect all kinds of data. Although The Wire didn’t mention it directly, they indirectly wanted to imply that as only governments can use the software, the Modi govt was spying on Indian journalists including Siddharth Varadarajan, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, M.K. Venu, Shishir Gupta, Rohini Singh etc.
The report included quotes from the allegedly targeted journalists who directly blamed the Modi government for ‘spying’ on them. However, The Wire, or other international publications, have not given any proof of this so-called leak. Moreover, none of the media houses reporting this ‘leak’ has said from where this data was leaked, which government was allegedly spying on those people. As the list apparently contains names from several countries, it is difficult to tell who was being spied on by which country, considering the list to be real.
After the reports of the alleged leak appeared in international media, the Indian government issued a statement responding to a questionnaire about the alleged leak. The statement says that “the story being crafted is one that is not only bereft of facts but also founded in pre-conceived conclusions. It seems you are trying to play the role of an investigator, prosecutor as well as jury.”
The statement said that both in RTI replies and in the Parliament, the govt has clarified that there has been no unauthorised interception by Government agencies. “The allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever,” the statement said.
The statement added that the Govt of India rubbishes reports in international media about snooping. “There is nothing new, these conjectures were answered earlier, and stories are based on conjectures and pre-conceived notions,” it said.
The NSO group also had refuted the claims by the Guardian report about the ‘leak’. The company had said that many of the claims made in the report are uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability of sources, as well as the basis of the story.
It had added, “NSO Group has good reason to believe that claims that you have been provided with, are based on misleading interpretation of leaked data from accessible and overt basic information, such as HLR Lookup services, which have no bearing on the list of the customers’ targets of Pegasus or any other NSO products.
Such services are openly available to anyone, anywhere, and anytime, and are commonly used by governmental agencies for numerous purposes, as well as by private companies worldwide. It is also beyond dispute that the data has many legitimate and entirely proper uses having nothing to do with surveillance or with NSO, so there can be no factual basis to suggest that a use of the data somehow equates to surveillance.”
NSO said that it does not operate the systems that it sells to vetted government customers, and does not have access to the data of its customers’ targets. It also said that due to contractual and national security considerations, NSO cannot confirm or deny the identity of their government customers.
Apart from India, other countries like Hungary, Morocco and Rwanda etc also have refuted the claim that the leaked list shows the names of persons who were under surveillance by the governments.
The full statement of the government of India is given below:
India is a robust democracy that is committed to ensuring the right to privacy to all its citizens as a fundamental right. In furtherance of this commitment, it has also introduced the personal data protection bill 2019 and the information technology (intermediary guidelines and digital media ethics code) rules 2021, to protect the personal data of individuals and to empower users of social media platforms.
The commitment to free speech as a fundamental right is the cornerstone of India’s democratic system. We have always strived to attain an informed citizenry with an emphasis on a culture of open dialogue.
However, the questionnaire sent to the government of India indicates that the story being crafted is one that is not only bereft of facts but also founded in pre-conceived conclusions. It seems you are trying to play the role of an investigator, prosecutor as well as jury.
Considering the fact that answers to the queries posed have already been in public domain for a long time, it also indicates poorly conducted research and lack of due diligence by the esteemed media organisations involved.
Government of India’s response to a right to information application about the use of Pegasus has been prominently reported by media and is in itself sufficient to counter any malicious claims about the alleged association between the government of India and Pegasus.
India’s minister of electronics and IT has also spoken in detail, including in the parliament, that there has been no unauthorised interception by government agencies. It is important to note that government agencies have a well-established protocol for interception, which includes sanction and supervision from highly ranked officials in central and state governments, for clear stated reasons only in national interest.Advertisement
The allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever. In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp by Indian state. Those reports also had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including WhatsApp in the Indian supreme court.
This news report, thus, also appears to be a similar fishing expedition, based on conjectures and exaggerations to malign the Indian democracy and its institutions.
In India there is a well established procedure through which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out in order for the purpose of national security, particularly on the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety, by agencies at the centre and states. The requests for these lawful interception of electronic communication are made as per relevant rules under the provisions of section 5(2) of Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 and section 69 of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2000.
Each case of interception, monitoring, and decryption is approved by the competent authority ie the union home secretary. These powers are also available to the competent authority in the state governments as per IT (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009.
There is an established oversight mechanism in the form of a review committee headed by the union cabinet secretary. In case of state governments, such cases are reviewed by a committee headed by the chief secretary concerned.
The procedure therefore ensures that any interception, monitoring or decryption of any information through any computer resource is done as per due process of law.