The BJP on Thursday claimed that the story on the alleged snooping through Israeli spyware Pegasus is “concocted, fabricated and evidence-less” and that the new reports based on it call for “defamation”. Union minister and BJP leader Meenakshi Lekhi cited reports to claim that Amnesty International, the human rights group associated with Pegasus Project, has denied the existence of a list of potential targets of the alleged snooping.
Addressing a press conference at the BJP headquarters here, she alleged that the “fake” list is like a collection of mobile numbers drawn from yellow pages and those have been used for “yellow journalism”. She was referring to news reports about the suspected snooping of people, including politicians and journalists, in India and several countries. Amnesty International, however, said in a statement that it “categorically stands” by the findings of the Pegasus Project and asserted that the data is irrefutably linked to potential targets of Israel-based NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware.
The comments by Amnesty International came after some media reports quoting a few Israeli journalists said that the human rights group has claimed that it never said that the recently leaked phone numbers were specifically a list of numbers targeted by Pegasus spyware. Lekhi told reporters that 10 countries have been named as places where this spyware was used and hit out at opposition parties, including the Congress and TMC, suggesting that rival parties other countries have not behaved the way they have in India. Opposition parties have stalled proceedings in Parliament, alleging the Modi government’s involvement in the alleged snooping, following reports that nearly 300 mobile phone numbers including of journalists, activists, opposition leaders and even two ministers from India figured in this list of potential snooping targets by NSO which sells its Pegasus spyware only to “vetted” governments and government agencies. She claimed, “This is not a story. This is a non-starter across the globe because based on a concocted, fabricated, evidence-less story, nobody does story. Because that story itself calls for forgery and defamation. Leaked data is an offence and that leads to further complications for people who base their stories on leaked data. it only happens in India.” “The published story is based on a list of numbers available in any directory. Second, Amnesty International has denied this. The company (NSO) which manufactures Pegasus has said that these claims are uncorroborated and do not tally with their customer base,” she said. Claiming that the Pegasus row is linked to the report of a parliamentary committee, which was headed by her and examined the Personal Data Protection Bill, she said it has been submitted to the Lok Sabha Speaker and is ready to be adopted by Parliament.
“Data protection is going to become the law of the and. This is directly related to that. This is to undermine Indian institutions that such kinds of stories are being floated,” she said. NSO, the Israeli firm behind the spyware, has denied such a list, Amnesty International has “denied” this and yet opposition is disrupting Parliament, she said, claiming that such a narrative is built repeatedly to damage India. The government is creating a “new ecosystem” to secure the data and rights of Indians, and the row is meant to damage it, she added.
“These kinds of stories are floated to undermine Indian institutions and stop data protection that is set to become the law of the land. This is to desensitize the public about the credibility of the structures and to malign the image of our country,” Lekhi alleged. Asked about the opposition’s query if the government has used the spyware, she said any such security information is classified as the government has to deal with terrorists and Maoists.
“I cannot tell you about what software I am working with. It will amount to assisting terrorists. The Congress should first clarify if it is with terrorists,” she said. Asked if the previous government might have bought it, she said these things are “beyond her pay grade”. The onus to prove is on those who have created such a list, she said in reply to another question. The BJP leader also condemned the opposition for snatching papers from Communications and Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw in Rajya Sabha and tearing them when he was about to make a statement on the alleged snooping row. The Congress and the TMC have “stooped” to a new low, she said.