Any form of surveillance not possible in India, says Union Minister Vaishnav
With checks and balances in Indian laws, surveillance of individuals through spyware technology is not possible, he said
Speaking in Rajya Sabha over the alleged use of spyware Pegasus to compromise phone data of individuals in some person as reported in the media, Minister of Electronics & Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnav on Thursday said any form of illegal surveillance is not possible with the checks and balances in the country’s laws and its robust institutions.
He said there can’t be a coincidence that the press report appeared a day before the Monsoon session of Parliament. “The press report of 18th July 2021 also appears to be an attempt to malign the Indian democracy and its well established institutions,” Minister Vaishnav said.
He further told the House that the basis of this report is that there is a consortium which has got access to a leaked database of 50,000 phone numbers. “The allegation is that individuals linked to these phone numbers were being spied upon,” the Minister said.
He quoted the media report which said “The presence of a phone number in the data does not reveal whether a device was infected with Pegasus or subject to an attempted hack. Without subjecting a phone to this technical analysis, it is not possible to conclusively state whether it witnessed an attack attempt or was successfully compromised.”
He said the report itself clarifies that presence of a number does not amount to snooping.
The Union Minister further said that NSO, the company which owns Pegasus technology, has itself maintained that the claims made by the news report are based on misleading interpretation of leaked data from basic information, such as HLR Lookup services, which have no bearing on the list of the customers’ targets of Pegasus or any other NSO products.
“Such services are openly available to anyone, anywhere, and anytime, and are commonly used by governmental agencies as well as by private companies worldwide. It is also beyond dispute that the data has nothing to do with surveillance or with NSO, so there can be no factual basis to suggest that a use of the data somehow equates to surveillance,” the Union Minister said.
“NSO has also said that the list of countries shown using Pegasus is incorrect and many countries mentioned are not even our clients. It also said that most of its clients are western countries,” he added.
The Minister said that in India, there is a well-established procedure through which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out for the purpose of national security, particularly on the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety, by agencies at the Centre and States.
“The requests for these lawful interceptions of electronic communication are made as per relevant rules under the provisions of section 5(2) of Indian Telegraph Act,1885 and section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000,” he said.
“Each case of interception or monitoring is approved by the competent authority. These powers are also available to the competent authority in the state governments as per IT (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009,” the Union Minister said in the House.
There is an established oversight mechanism in the form of a review committee headed by the Union Cabinet Secretary. In case of state governments, such cases are reviewed by a committee headed by the Chief Secretary concerned. The law also provides an adjudication process for those adversely affected by any incident.
“The procedure therefore ensures that any interception or monitoring of any information is done as per due process of law. The framework and institutions have withstood the test of time,” Ashwini Vaishnav argued.
He said there is no substance behind such sensationalism as the “publisher of the report states that it cannot say if the numbers in the published list were under surveillance.”