THE Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology is expected to take up the Pegasus spyware issue at a meeting on July 28. The committee will hear from representatives of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, the Department of Telecommunications, and the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY). The committee is headed by Indian National Congress (INC) MP Shashi Tharoor.
Tharoor had earlier criticised the government over this issue. In his article published in The Quint, he said, “Taking control of devices or hacking them through spyware or malware is clearly a gross violation of the right to privacy recognised by the Supreme Court. Surveillance using a spyware tool like Pegasus would be illegal unless those who have done it can demonstrate otherwise. This is why I have called for an independent investigation of the entire Pegasus affair.”
“Hacking is against the law in India, except if the government invokes a national security exception, which, to my knowledge, they have not done. Hacking is a criminal offence under the Information Technology Act. As per Section 43 read with Section 66, unauthorised access to a computer device, computer resource and computer network can attract imprisonment up to 3 years or a fine which may extend to 5 lakh rupees or both,” he further added.
This comes in the backdrop of a leaked database of alleged snooping targets, accessed by an international media consortium called the Pegasus Project, consisting of over 300 Indian mobile numbers, including the numbers of over 40 journalists, two incumbent Union Ministers, at least three opposition party leaders, a sitting Supreme Court judge, and former heads of security organisations, among others.
Speaking on the floor of the Parliament, Aishwini Vaishnav, Minister for Communications and Electronics & IT said, “The basis of the report is that there is a consortium which has got access to a leaked database of 50,000 phone numbers. The allegation is that individuals linked to these phone numbers were being spied upon. However, the report says that ‘the presence of a phone number in the data does not reveal whether a device was infected with Pegasus or subject to an attempted hack’. Without subjecting a phone to the technical analysis, it is not possible to conclusively state whether it witnessed an attack attempt or was successfully compromised. Therefore, the report itself clarifies that presence of a number does not amount to snooping.”
Terming it a global conspiracy to disrupt Parliament’s Monsoon session, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said, “This is a report by the disrupters for the obstructers. Disrupters are global organisations which do not like India to progress. Obstructers are political players who do not want India to progress. People of India are very good at understanding this chronology and connection.”
“People have often associated this phrase with me in a lighter vein but today I want to seriously say – the timing of the selective leaks, the disruptions…Aap Chronology Samajhiye!,” he added.
“BJP snooped to topple the government”
The Wire, which is part of 17 news organisations investigating this case, reported that contact numbers of many high-profile political leaders of Karnataka featured in the list of 300 Indians. This includes the numbers of the secretaries of former Chief Ministers H.D. Kumaraswamy and Siddaramaiah, and former Deputy Chief Minister Dr. G. Parameshwara, among others.
Their numbers were believed to be selected for snooping in the early months of 2019 when the INC-Janata Dal (Secular) (JDS) government was in power in the state. The period was marked by infighting among leaders of both parties, which finally led to the fall of the government. Both INC and JDS blamed the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) for poaching 17 of their MLA into its fold.
Siddaramaiah doesn’t have a personal number and relies on his private secretary Venkatesh’s number for communication. Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda’s security personnel Manjunath Muddegowda and Kumaraswamy’s Personal Assistant Satish’s numbers also feature in the list.
However, taking to Twitter later, Kumaraswamy said, “This is one of the means to bring down State governments and bring up new governments to protect the Union government.” Parameshwara, also targeting the union government, tweeted, “Every time we believe the BJP-led Union government cannot go any lower, fresh proof arrives to show they can and will stoop to the lowest, do everything, including partnering with foreign powers, to gain power and topple secular governments.”
However, since these accusations are not forensically analysed, they are still not conclusively proven.
Pakistan Minister blames Modi and Sharif for snooping on Imran
The latest revelations suggest that 14 heads of state were also on the list of potential targets of the Israeli spyware Pegasus. The lists include French President Emmanuel Macron, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, and King of Morocco Mohammed VI, among others.
Meanwhile, the blame game has also started among the nations.
Pakistan’s Information and Broadcasting Minister blamed Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for Khan’s inclusion in the list. He said, “It is likely that Sharif obtained information [about Imran Khan] through Israeli spyware with the help of Narendra Modi. Modi had also made a stopover in Pakistan at a wedding function in Nawaz Sharif’s family, while the latter had also attended the inauguration ceremony of the Indian PM. These links indicate a strong connection between them.”
Le Monde, the French publication part of the investigative collaboration, reported that the French President might have been under surveillance since 2017 by Morocco. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and finance minister Bruno Le Maire were also included in the list. On Tuesday, French prosecutors announced that they are investigating the role of Moroccan intelligence agencies in spying on the president. Morocco had denied these allegations.
Close ties between NSO Group and the Israeli Government
The Guardian on Tuesday reported about the close relations shared between the NSO group and the Israeli government.
Most of the employees of the cyber firm are Israeli cyber-intelligence officials. The group exports its software only after explicit permission from the government to “friendly countries”. A recent transparency report released by the firm acknowledged that its exports are strictly regulated by Defence Exports Controls Agency, a department within Israel’s Ministry of Defence.
Although NSO claims that it sells its software only after looking at the human rights record of the customer, the revelations reveal that Israel has been using this software to improve its trade and diplomatic relations. The report further suggests that the exports of the software to India and Hungary only began after the Prime Ministers met their Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu.
“NSO Group is a private company. It is not a ‘tool of Israeli diplomacy’. It is not a backdoor for Israeli intelligence and it does not take direction from any government leader,” NSO’s lawyer said.
Reacting to this controversy, privacy activist, journalist and whistle-blower Edward Snowden, called for an international ban on the spyware trade, posting on Twitter, “Let me be clear: export regulations, licensing, and reviews have been in place for years. They did not work, and cannot work. A moratorium on the trade-in intrusion software is the bare minimum for a credible response mere triage. Anything less and the problem gets worse.”
“This is not a maximalist position, it is simply realism. You aren’t even breathing the same air as a strong position until you reach criminal liability for involvement in the trade.”