Phone numbers of over 40 Indian journalists were on a hacking list of an unidentified agency using Israeli spyware Pegasus, reported The Wire on Sunday evening. The report said forensic tests have confirmed that some of them were successfully snooped upon by the agency. The numbers of top journalists at Hindustan Times, India Today, Network18, The Hindu, The Indian Express, and The Wire were in the leaked list, the report added.
The Wire's analysis of the data showed that most of the journalists were targetted between 2018 and 2019, in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Some journalists, including Rohini Singh and Sushant Singh, were reportedly covering the business affairs of Union Home Minister Amit Shah's son Jay Shah and the controversial Rafale aircraft deal with France respectively at the time.
The report further added that the NSO Group, which sells Pegasus, has claimed that it only offers its spyware to "vetted governments". "The company refuses to make its list of customers public but the presence of Pegasus infections in India, and the range of persons that may have been selected for targetting, strongly indicate that the agency operating the spyware on Indian numbers is an official Indian one," the report added.
The Wire, in the report, said that the France-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International had first accessed the leaked list which they shared with several other news organisations worldwide as part of a collaborative investigation called the 'Pegasus Project'.
"This is the first of what will be a series of explosive stories in the next four days by The Wire and 16 media partners around the world who collaborated in 'Pegasus Project'," tweeted The Wire's Founding Editor Siddharth Varadarajan.
Meanwhile, in a few minutes after the report was published, the Centre put out its response and said the allegations have no concrete basis. "India is a robust democracy that is committed to ensuring the right to privacy to all its citizens as a fundamental right," the government said. "There has been no unauthorised interception by government agencies. The allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever," it added.
Here is Centre's reply:
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.
The commitment to free speech as a fundamental right is the cornerstone of India's democratic system. We have always strived to attain an informed citizenry with an emphasis on a culture of open dialogue.
However, the questionnaire sent to the Government of India indicates that the story being crafted is one that is not only bereft of facts but also founded in pre-conceived conclusions. It seems you are trying to play the role of an investigator, prosecutor as well as jury.
Considering the fact that answers to the queries posed have already been in public domain for a long time, it also indicates poorly conducted research and lack of due diligence by the esteemed media organizations involved.
Government of India's response to a Right to Information application about the use of Pegasus has been prominently reported by media and is in itself sufficient to counter any malicious claims about the alleged association between the Government of India and Pegasus.
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 allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever.
In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp by Indian State. 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.
In India there is a well established procedure through which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out in order for the purpose of national security, particularly on the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety, by agencies at the Centre and States. The requests for these lawful interception of electronic communication are made as per relevant rules under the provisions of section 5(2) of Indian Telegraph Act,1885 and section 69 of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2000.
Each case of interception, monitoring, and decryption is approved by the competent authority Le, the Union Home Secretary. These powers are also available to the competent authority in the state governments as per IT (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009.
There is an established oversight mechanism in the form of a review committee headed by the Union Cabinet Secretary. In case of state governments, such cases are reviewed by a committee headed by the Chief Secretary concerned.
The procedure therefore ensures that any interception, monitoring or decryption of any information through any computer resource is done as per due process of law.