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New Delhi: Despite the United States blacklisting the NSO Group in connection with the Pegasus spyware issue last month, the Union ministry of electronics and information technology in response to a question in parliament on Friday, December 3, said it had “no information” about the matter.
In response to another query, the ministry also stated that there was “no proposal” to ban a group by that name.
The question on NSO Group was raised by Samajwadi Party MPs Vishambhar Prasad Nishad and Sukhram Singh Yadav in the Rajya Sabha on Friday. They asked the minister of electronics and information technology “whether the United States of America has blacklisted NSO Group and Candiru, for providing Pegasus spyware, which has been used to maliciously target journalists, embassy workers and activists”.
In his response, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, minister of state for electronics and information technology, said, “No such information is available in the Ministry”.
The reply came despite the fact that the US Department of Commerce only last month blacklisted two Israeli spyware companies, NSO Group and Candiru, and added them to the list of foreign establishments that engage in malicious cyber activities.
Blacklisting the NSO Group, the Biden administration had stated that the company knowingly supplied spyware that was used by foreign governments to “maliciously target” the phones of dissidents, human rights activists, journalists and others. A report by New York Times had stated as per the Commerce Department, the NSO Group and another Israeli company, Candiru, acted “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States”.
That the minister of state for electronics and information technology has no information on the development is surprising considering the heat the Pegasus spyware issue generated in the Monsoon Session of parliament when the opposition had continuously protested against the Pegasus controversy.
The opposition had through the session sought explanation and discussion from the government on the revelations of the Pegasus Project, which was a collaborative investigation that involved 17 news organisations – including The Wire – into a database of phone numbers selected for possible and successful surveillance by clients of the Israeli NSO Group.
The Wire‘s reports had revealed that those in the list included opposition politicians, journalists, senior government employees and activists. The Pegasus Project, which investigated the leak of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets, had also revealed how NSO Group’s spyware was used to enabled human rights violations and those under surveillance included heads of state, activists and journalists.
In India, some of the prominent names which figured in the list included Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, his aides Alankar Sawai and Sachin Rao; election strategist Prashant Kishor; Trinamool Congress MP and Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee; former IAS officer and Cabinet minister Ashwini Vaishnaw; Cabinet minister Prahlad Singh Patel; and former Vishwa Hindu Parishad head Pravin Togadia.
Meanwhile in response to another query from the two MPs on “whether the Ministry has also banned the NSO Group in India,” Chandrasekhar responded that “there is no proposal for banning any group named ‘NSO group’.”
Earlier this year in August, the Centre had also disallowed a question in the Rajya Sabha by Communist Party of India MP Binoy Viswam, on whether the government had entered into a contract with the Israeli cybersecurity firm.
The question was dismissed by the Centre citing Rule 47 (xix) of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Council of States (Rajya Sabha) that deals with the admissibility of questions. The government only stated that “the ongoing issue of Pegasus” was sub-judice as “several PILs have been filed before the Supreme Court”.
The Pegasus Project is a collaborative investigation that involves more than 80 journalists from 17 news organisations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Read all our coverage here.