New Delhi:

IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has slammed the release of “over-the-top” media reports about the government’s use of Israeli spyware Pegasus to spy on opposition leaders, journalists and others, including its own ministers and a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, and said it “can’t be a coincidence” that they were published a day before the opening of Parliament’s monsoon session.

Addressing the Lok Sabha on a day punctuated by fierce protests from the opposition, Mr Vaishnaw insisted there was “no substance behind this sensational” claim and that “checks and balances” ensured that illegal surveillance is “not possible”.

“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,” Mr Vaishnaw 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,” he added.

These reports are an attempt to malign Indian democracy, Mr Vaishnaw declared.

On Sunday, The Wire and other publications reported that phone numbers of opposition leaders, journalists and others were found on a database of targets to be hacked.

The numbers of those listed include over 40 journalists, three major opposition figures, a constitutional authority and two serving ministers in the Modi government, as well as current and former heads of security organisations, The Wire alleged.

The government has hit back strongly and has insisted there is no concrete basis to these claims. Yesterday, a source in the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology told NDTV the government had “nothing to fear and nothing to hide”.

“We will reply to any query. The news article proves nothing. In fact, previous attempts to link Pegasus with the government have failed,” the source said.

Israeli company NSO Group, which sells Pegasus, has denied the allegations and claimed it only offers its product to “vetted governments”. The company is “considering a defamation lawsuit“.

These allegations come two years after WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in a US court, accusing the NSO Group of helping government spies hack the phones of 1,400 users, including Indian journalists and activists.

WhatsApp chief Will Carter tweeted links to foreign publications’ report on Pegasus and said: “Human rights defenders, tech companies and governments must work together to increase security and hold abusers of spyware accountable…”


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