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Independent probe must into Pegasus affair

Such surveillance is done only by the government or at its behest, but it has denied any association with and responsibility for it
Last Updated : 21 July 2021, 10:19 IST
Last Updated : 21 July 2021, 10:19 IST

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The disclosure that the phones of over 300 people in the country were targeted for hacking using spyware called Pegasus, supplied by an Israeli company NSO Group, raises many serious ethical, political and legal questions. These questions have a bearing on constitutional practices and democratic conduct. The leaked database of targets for surveillance includes Indian mobile phone numbers, including those of politicians, constitutional officers, journalists, rights activists, even scientists and many others. The list includes not only Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi and the government’s critics but even the government’s own ministers and their aides, most notably the present IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw.

Such surveillance is done only by the government or at its behest, but it has denied any association with and responsibility for it. Minister Vaishnaw, who is himself a victim, has made the absurd claim that the reports that appeared a day before the monsoon session of Parliament are an attempt to malign India. This ignores the fact that the disclosures were not just about India. They were made by an international team of investigative journalists from 16 reputed media houses, who found that over 50,000 phones all over the world were hacked with the help of Pegasus.

The timing does not detract from the value of any disclosure. Reports of the use of Pegasus spyware in India had appeared two years ago, too. The government’s response then and now – that “no unauthorised instruction has been done” or that it has already answered questions about the use of Pegasus – are vague and misleading. The government’s response to an RTI query in 2019 did not deny the purchase of Pegasus by it, nor has it now categorically denied that it has been used for surveillance.

The circumstances surrounding the use of the spyware may actually point to the government, despite its denials. NSO Group has said it only sells the spyware to “vetted’’ governments and it has refused to answer the question of whether it had sold it to the Indian government. Most of those targeted are on the wrong side of the government, and some of them have been subjected to harassment.

There should be an independent investigation and those who are responsible for the hacking and surveillance should be identified and held to account for it. If the government has no role in it, it should be of special interest to it to find out who was conducting such large-scale, illegal snooping in the country. It has a bearing on national security and cannot be dismissed as a conspiracy. A democracy cannot function under surveillance and violation of the privacy of journalists, Opposition leaders, constitutional officers and ordinary citizens. A government that does illegal snooping for political purposes loses democratic legitimacy.

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Published 21 July 2021, 06:53 IST

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