Pegasus: Defence Ministry Says in RS It 'Hasn't Had Any Transaction With NSO Group'

The NSO claims that its military-grade spyware, Pegasus, is only sold to “vetted governments”.

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New Delhi: The defence ministry on Monday, August 9, said in parliament that it “did not have any transaction” with the Israeli NSO Group, which sells the Pegasus spyware.

The Pegasus Project – a collaborative investigation that involved more than 80 journalists from 17 news organisations, including The Wire in India – had looked into a leaked database of phone numbers selected by clients of the NSO Group for possible and successful surveillance.

Since the news outlets began releasing reports on politicians, activists and journalists who have been included in the list or successfully snooped upon, the NSO Group has been under increasing attack.

Under fire, NSO group co-founder Shalev Hulio has promised to probe any cases of human rights abuses linked to the use of Pegasus.

The Wire‘s investigations have found that opposition politicians, journalists, activists, Supreme Court functionaries and others comprise a list of 161 people who were possibly or certainly snooped upon.

The NSO claims that the military-grade spyware is only sold to “vetted governments” and the Indian government has neither denied nor confirmed purchasing Pegasus.

“Ministry of Defence has not had any transaction with NSO Group Technologies,” Minister of State for Defence Ajay Bhatt said while replying to a question in Rajya Sabha.

He was asked whether the government had carried out any transaction with the NSO Group Technologies.

In India, authorised surveillance takes place under the ambit of two laws (the Telegraph Act, 1885 and the Information Technology Act, 2000). Both laws involve some level of participation from officials at the home ministry (at the Centre) and home department (at the state government level). There is hardly any role for the defence ministry (barring one agency).

Since parliament met on July 19 for the Monsoon Session, the Union government has avoided a discussion on the Pegasus row in spite of the Opposition’s unrelenting demand for talks and an judicial inquiry into the revelations.

Even though the defence ministry gave the answer in the Rajya Sabha, reports have said that the Union government has moved to disallow a question in the same house seeking details of whether the government entered into a contract with the NSO Group citing that “the ongoing issue of Pegasus” is subjudice after “several PILs have been filed in the Supreme Court”. This particular question had been addressed to the Ministry of External Affairs by a CPI MP.

IT and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw had said in parliament that the reports were “aimed at maligning Indian democracy.”

In a suo motu statement in Lok Sabha, Vaishnaw had said that with several checks and balances being in place, “any sort of illegal surveillance” by unauthorised persons is not possible in India.

Referring to The Wire report, without naming it, Vaishnaw had sought to stress that the presence of numbers in the list was not proof of surveillance. “The publisher of the report states that it cannot say if the numbers in the published list were under surveillance. The company whose technology was allegedly used has denied these claims outrightly. And the time tested processes in our country are well-established to ensure that unauthorised surveillance does not occur,” he said.

Vaishnaw’s number was among the 300 verified Indian numbers listed as potential targets for surveillance during 2017-2019, The Wire had earlier revealed.

The Wire has earlier highlighted how Vaishnaw had misled the Lok Sabha by saying that there was “no factual basis” to the claim of an earlier Pegasus attack. The minister had stated in the House that “In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp, those reports had no factual basis and has been denied by all parties….”

However, this is contradicted by answers provided by his ministry to RTI queries and parliament questions in the past.

(With PTI inputs)