Written by: Smita Pandey (Intern)
Edited by: Anubhav Yadav (Content Head & Developer)
What Is Pegasus?
NSO Group, a cyber intelligence and security organization based in Tel Aviv, Israel, developed Pegasus. The spyware, which has been around since at least 2016, is also known by various names, such as Q Suite and Trident. Governments were supposed to employ Pegasus on a per-license basis. Pegasus’ creator prohibited sales to state intelligence agencies and others in May 2019.
According to the company’s website, NSO Group develops technology that “assists government agencies” in averting and probing terrorism and crime, saving thousands of lives all across the world. The Israeli government utilized it to target allies of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist who was critical of Saudi leaders.
According to a revelation in ‘The Wire,’ the Indian government spied on approximately 300 Indians between 2017 and 2019. Journalists, attorneys, social workers, opposition politicians, and businessmen are among them. According to the research, Pegasus malware was used to hijack the phones of these 300 people. The government, on the other hand, has denounced all of the charges as unsubstantiated.
The Wire claims that among those on the leaked database of numbers are Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and at least two ministers in the Narendra Modi government: Ashwini Vaishnaw (inducted as a minister of railways, communications and electronics, and information technology) and minister of state Prahlad Singh Patel. Ashok Lavasa, the only election commissioner to criticize the BJP for breaching the model code of conduct in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, is on the list. The documents also contain Jagdeep Chhokhar, the founder of the influential election watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), who was added to the list around the same time as Lavasa.
Over 11 phone numbers belonging to a Supreme Court clerk and her close family who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in April 2019 was chosen as targets for monitoring, according to the leaked data. The virologist Gagandeep Kang, who has played a crucial role in India’s fight against Covid-19, is also on the list. In 2018, she was chosen for possible surveillance while assisting in the fight against the Nipah virus.
PIL against the Modi Government
In the midst of the controversy surrounding the Pegasus Snoopgate, advocate Manohar Lal Sharma filed a petition in the Supreme Court on Thursday requesting a SIT investigation into claims of snooping on Indian residents using the Israeli spyware Pegasus. Sharma accused PM Modi and his council of ministers of respondents. On Monday, a ruckus erupted in Parliament as the Centre vehemently denied snooping on 300 citizens using Israeli malware called Pegasus. On July 28, the IT panel will convene to discuss the alleged snooping.
The following points are raised in the PIL:
“a) Does the Constitution empower the Prime Minister and his ministers to snoop on Indian citizens for political gain?
b) Whether purchasing Pegasus software without permission in violation of Art. 266 (3), 267 (2), and 283 (2) of the IPC does not fall under S.408 & 409,120-B of the IPC?
c) Whether snooping on ordinary Indian citizens, opposition leaders, judges, and others do not constitute a crime under Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act of 1923, as well as Sections 65, 66, and 72 of the Information Technology Act of 2000, when combined with a violation of Article 21.
On Sunday night, the Centre published a rebuttal to a report alleging that the Indian government used the Israeli spyware Pegasus to eavesdrop on over 300 people, including 40 journalists. The Centre said that the questionnaire supplied to it was “based on pre-conceived assumptions” and that the Centre’s RTI response to the use of Pegasus was sufficient in and of itself, asserting that India was committed to free speech.
The Centre dismissed the claim as a “fishing expedition,” recalling that similar charges were made about the use of Pegasus on Whatsapp, which were flatly denied by all parties, including Whatsapp, in the Supreme Court. The aim of the list could not be definitely ascertained,’ and the list does not ‘indicate who put the numbers on it or why,’ according to NSO Group, the owner of ‘Pegasus.’