On Sunday night, a hacking alert rose that the Pegasus Spyware had been used to pry on the Indian activists and journalists. Telephone numbers of some 40 Indian journalists figure in a leaked list of potential targets for surveillance, and forensic tests were said to have confirmed that some of them were successfully pried upon by an unidentified agency using the software.

The Pegasus Effect and the Ones Who Got Affected

Indian ministers, government officials and opposition leaders also figure in the list of people whose phones may have been snooped by the spyware. The Wire conducted the investigation along with various international partners claimed the prying.

The spyware Pegasus is apparently sold to governments around the world by NSO group, an Israeli company. It can be used to snoop on phones that run on Android and iOS systems.

The leaked telephone numbers included correspondents, editors, activists and writers from the Hindustan Times, The Hindu, India Today, Indian Express and Network18.

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Government’s Reaction

According to recent sources, the government will not back down from putting up a strong defence in the Pegasus spyware scandal. Some reported that phone numbers of Indian journalists were on the hacking list of an unidentified agency using the Pegasus software, made by the Israeli firm NSO Group.

The Ministry responded to the alert by saying that-

“We have nothing to fear and the government has 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.”

NSO Responds to the accusations

NSO Group in its “Transparency and Responsibility Report 2021” claims that its products are designed for the sole use of thoroughly vetted and approved governmental agencies charged with maintaining public safety and security.

It says-

“We license Pegasus only to select approved, verified and authorised states and state agencies, specifically to be used in national security and major law enforcement-driven investigations.”

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Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology’s Take on the Situation

The ministry also briefed about the procedure through which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out in order for the purpose of national security, which is particularly done on the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety, by agencies at the Centre and States.

The Ministry released a statement saying that-

“The requests for these lawful interception 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 (Amendment) Act, 2000. Each case of interception, monitoring, and decryption is approved by the competent authority i.e. the Union Home Secretary. There is an established oversight mechanism in the form of a review committee headed by the Union Cabinet Secretary.”

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Pegasus Has Threatened in the Past Too

In late 2019, WhatsApp had filed a lawsuit in a US court, accusing that Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group was helping government spies pry and snoop into the phones of about 1,400 users across four continents.

Following reports that journalists and activists in India were also targeted, then Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told the Rajya Sabha that “no unauthorised interception” took place and the case was closed for the time being.