Law and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad evaded this question multiple times on Thursday as opposition leaders in the Rajya Sabha demanded a clear answer on the government’s involvement in the WhatsApp breach. The Upper House of the Parliament was holding a discussion on the surveillance scandal.
The NSO group, which developed the snooping software, has maintained that it sells Pegasus exclusively to governments.
“In the interest of sovereignty and safety of India, data can be intercepted as per the IT law,” the minister said.
RJD’s Manoj K Jha said the minister’s statement was vague on the purchase of the spyware.
Digvijaya Singh interrupted Prasad at least thrice, asking for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer on whether the government had entered into any business transaction or negotiated a deal with NSO and bought the spyware.
The BJP minister repeatedly cited laws on intercepting messages, said there was a standard operating procedure to carry this out and review it. “We will do this for the country’s security and to protect people’s right,” he said.
“If they (enforcement agencies) have to, they do it only through a standard operating procedure. Oversight is there,” he added.
Prasad also said the government had sent a notice to the NSO on the surveillance.
The minister said that the litigation between WhatsApp and NSO in the US was a private battle which the Indian government would not join.
The government, he said, is also holding discussions with WhatsApp on tracing messages to its origin in cases where they lead to breach of law and order and violence.
“Our soldiers give their lives but don’t think about their privacy. We must think about them,” Prasad said.
“If Digvijaya Singh thinks that terrorism should be strongly dealt with, then he shouldn’t interfere and question it further,” he added.
The minister commented on the public statements made by activists and lawyers in the media, saying nobody who claimed to have been surveilled had filed an FIR or complained to the IT ministry.
“Names appear in media and the issue is made political. It is too much of a coincidence that the names are of people who are anti-government,” he said.
Among the people who came forward were rights activists and lawyers, including those involved in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Seventeen of those targeted in the hack wrote to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology last week, asking for a detailed probe into the cyber attacks and for details to be placed before the Parliament. They have asked the committee to summon relevant government departments for answers on which agencies had conducted the surveillance, whether the Centre or state governments were involved, who all were surveilled and what the government was doing to repair the breach.
Digvijaya Singh said he wanted a straight answer from the minister because he had been “framed” in the Bhima Koregaon case.
“MPs and judges are being spied on,” Singh said to which Prasad immediately responded with, “Galat baat!”
Congress’s Anand Sharma asked the government to clarify to the house whether government agencies had made unauthorised use of Pegasus spyware.
Prasad said that, to his knowledge, there had been no unauthorised use. He said violation of law was actionable and that people affected should file an FIR.
RJD’s Jha stepped in, asking the minister to either accept or deny in response to the specific questions raised by Opposition leaders.
The discussion then devolved into a ruckus in the house before moving onto the Chit Fund Bill.
So, did the government buy Pegasus spyware? It doesn’t seem to think that’s a question worth answering.