The Pegasus spyware was used to hack phones of Indian politicians, journalists and activists, said a report quoting an investigation by a group of 17 global media organisations, a claim that was denied by the Central Government.
The government said in its response that “no unauthorised interception" has taken place and that the report is not only “bereft of facts” but also “founded in pre-conceived conclusions”.
The report published by online news platform The Wire said the leaked data includes the numbers of top journalists at big media houses. It also said the data shows that most of the names were targeted between 2018 and 2019, in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha general elections.
The report said the presence of a phone number in the data does alone not reveal whether a device was infected with Pegasus or subject to an attempted hack. “However, the Pegasus Project that analysed this list believes the data is indicative of potential targets identified in advance of possible surveillance attempts,” it said.
Pegasus is sold by the Israeli company NSO Group, which says it only offers its spyware to “vetted governments”, according to the report. Pegasus was in the news in 2019 when it was found that spies used the spyware to hack into phones of roughly 1,400 users around the world, including 121 Indians.
No 'concrete basis or truth'
The Union government, however, dismissed the claims of snooping, saying the allegations have no “concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever”.
“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.”
“India’s Minister of Electronics & 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 & state governments, for clear stated reasons only in national interest,” the statement said.
Stating that in the past too, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp, the government said, “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,” it added.
With inputs from agencies