No Proposal To Ban Pegasus Maker 'NSO group': Centre To Parliament

This is at least the third instance where the Centre has had to respond to the Pegasus issue.

Ritika Jain
Update: 2021-12-04 13:26 GMT

There is no proposal for banning Israeli-based spyware firm 'NSO group', the Centre told the Parliament on Friday. The Centre also said it did not have any information on whether the United States of America (USA) has blacklisted NSO Group and Candiru—a cybersecurity firm, for providing a military-grade spyware Pegasus, which has been used to maliciously target journalists, embassy workers and activists.

Chandrashekar was responding to a query posed by Samajwadi Party MPs Vishambhar Prasad Nishad and Sukhram Singh Yadav in the Rajya Sabha.

Pegasus, military-grade spyware developed by the NSO Group, was allegedly used to target union cabinet ministers, government critics, Supreme Court (SC) judge (who has since retired), SC staffers and businesspersons. According to NSO Group, the spyware was provided to "vetted governments" only.

Earlier this year, The Wire—along with a consortium of international publications—released a series of reports under the 'Pegasus Project' outlining the alleged use of Pegasus to spy on civilians, government critics and heads of state among others. However, Pegasus first came to the limelight in 2019 after WhatsApp sued NSO Group in a US federal court in San Francisco accusing them of targeting some 1,400 WhatsApp users with the spyware. At the time, Facebook-owned WhatsApp had said some journalists and human rights activists were also targets of surveillance.

In a blow to the NSO Group, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on November 9 rejected its claim seeking foreign sovereign immunity allowing Facebook-owned WhatsApp to pursue its lawsuit against the spyware company. This means NSO Group will now have to comply with 'discovery'—a pre-trial stage where one or both parties can obtain evidence through discovery devices such as interrogations, requests for production of documents, requests for admissions and depositions.

In response to the Pegasus Project, several countries have also initiated probes over the alleged illegal use of Pegasus against their citizens. Last month in November, the US Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO Group and Candiru and added them to the list of foreign establishments that engage in malicious cyber activities.

Also Read: SC Appoints Expert Committee To Probe Allegations Of Pegasus Snooping

At least the three instances where the Pegasus issue came up in Parliament

The opposition has raised the Pegasus issue in the Parliament on at least three instances. Earlier this year in July, Union Minister of Information and Technology Ashwani Vaishnaw ducked a pointed question on whether the Centre authorised the use of Pegasus against its citizens and instead had said that the Pegasus Project was "sensational", and an attempt "to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions".

In fact, the Monsoon session—which ended two days before schedule—was a washout because of the opposition's demand for a debate on Pegasus.

Vaishaw's predecessor Ravi Shankar Prasad too ducked the Opposition's query during the Parliament's Winter Session in 2020 and said that there was no unauthorised spying to the "best of my knowledge".

In fact, when issue of the spyware's alleged illegal use came up before the Supreme Court, the Centre abstained from filing a reply. Despite getting repeated chances, the Centre had told the top court that it was not going to file a detailed affidavit in the Pegasus matter. The use of the software, or the lack thereof, cannot be a subject matter of debate in public discourse, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had submitted. We will constitute a committee of domain experts who are unconnected with the government to probe the matter, Mehta had said.

The Supreme Court on October 27 appointed a three-member committee to probe into the allegations of alleged use of Pegasus against Indians.

Also Read: 40 Indian Journos In Leaked List Of Potential Targets Of Pegasus Snooping

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