IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has slammed the release of “over-the-top” media reports about the government’s use of Israeli spyware Pegasus to spy on opposition leaders, journalists and others, including its own ministers and a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, and said it “can’t be a coincidence” that they were published a day before the opening of Parliament’s monsoon session.
Addressing the Lok Sabha on a day punctuated by fierce protests from the opposition – who forced adjournments and shouted slogans as Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a speech – Mr Vaishnaw said there is “no substance behind this sensational” claim, and that “with checks and balances in place, illegal surveillance not possible”.
“A highly sensational story was published by a web portal last night. Many over-the-top allegations (were) made around this story. The press reports appeared a day before (the) monsoon session of Parliament. This can’t be a coincidence,” Mr Vaishnaw said.
“In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp. Those reports had no factual basis and were denied by all parties. Press reports of 18 July also appear to be an attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions,” he added.
These reports are an attempt to malign Indian democracy, Mr Vaishnaw declared.
On Sunday, The Wire and other publications reported that phone numbers of ministers, opposition leaders and journalists were found on a database of targets for hacking by Pegasus, which, its developers say, is available only to governments.
Members of the legal community, businessmen, government officials, scientists, activists and others are also on the list of over 300 verified Indian mobile telephone numbers, the reports said.
The numbers of those in the database include over 40 journalists, three major opposition figures, one constitutional authority, two serving ministers in the Narendra Modi government, current and former heads and officials of security organisations and scores of businesspersons, The Wire reported, adding it will publish the names in the coming days.
Reports released by news publications in other countries made similarly worrying allegations, including the targeting of human rights activists.
The government has hit back strongly and insisted there is no concrete basis to these claims.
Yesteday a source in the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology told NDTV the government had “nothing to fear and nothing to hide”.
“We will reply to any query. The news article proves nothing. In fact, previous attempts to link Pegasus with the government have failed,” the source said.
These allegations come two years after WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in a US court, accusing Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group – the developers of Pegasus – of helping government spies break into the phones of about 1,400 users across four continents, including Indian journalists and activists.