Media reports on use of Israeli spyware Pegasus ‘over the top’: Indian IT minister
India's Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw today flayed the release of what he called "over the top" media reports about the use of Israeli spyware Pegasus to spy on opposition leaders and journalists and said there was "no substance behind this sensational" claim and that "checks and balances" ensured that illegal surveillance is "not possible".
The issue was raised by the opposition in the Lok Sabha on the opening day of parliament's monsoon session, reports our New Delhi correspondent.
Vaishnaw said it "can't be a coincidence" that the stories on the Pegasus spyware were published a day before the opening of parliament's monsoon session.
"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," he 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," the minister added.
More than 300 verified mobile phone numbers, including of two serving Indian ministers, over 40 journalists, three opposition leaders and one sitting judge besides scores of business persons and activists in India could have been targeted for hacking through the Israeli spyware sold only to government agencies, an international media consortium reported on Sunday.
Asserting that "India is a robust democracy that is committed to ensuring the right to privacy to all its citizens as a fundamental right", the Indian government dismissed the media report as an attempt to playing "the role of an investigator, prosecutor as well as jury".
The report was published by The Wire news portal from India as also 16 other international publications including Washington Post, The Guardian and Le Monde, as media partners to an investigation conducted by Paris-based media non-profit organisation Forbidden Stories and rights group Amnesty International into a leaked list of more than 50,000 phone numbers from across the world that are believed to have been the target of surveillance through Pegasus software of Israeli surveillance company NSO Group.
The Wire reported that forensic tests conducted as part of the media investigation project on a small cross-section of phones associated with these numbers revealed clear signs of targeting by Pegasus spyware in 37 phones, of which 10 are Indian.
The Wire said the numbers of those in the database from India 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, as also a sitting judge.
A majority of the numbers identified in the list were geographically concentrated in India, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The leaked data includes the numbers of top journalists at big media houses like the Hindustan Times, India Today, Network18, The Hindu and Indian Express, The Wire said.
The Wire, however, added that the mere presence of a phone number in the leaked data alone does not reveal whether a device was infected.
"Indeed, it is not possible to know whether their phones were targeted by Pegasus spyware... without digital forensic analysis," it said.
The Mumbai Press Club said "we strongly condemn the spying on the phones of 40 Indian journalists, among others. There should be an independent inquiry into this entire affair."