Pakistan's Minister of Information and Broadcasting Fawad Hussain Chaudhry on Monday slammed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government over reports that it had employed the services of an Israeli spyware company to snoop on nearly 300 Indian phone numbers. About 40 of them reportedly belong to senior journalists, political opponents, government officials and even two cabinet ministers.
Extremely concerned on news reports emerging from @guardiannews that Indian Govt used Israeli software to spy on Journalists,political opponents and politicians,unethical policies of #ModiGovt have dangerously polarised India and the region... more details are emerging— Ch Fawad Hussain (@fawadchaudhry) July 19, 2021
The political attack on the Indian government by Hussain comes a day after Forbidden Stories, a France-based non-profit, and human rights group Amnesty International made public details of an alleged massive cyber-security breach by an Israeli firm, NSO Group.
According to the Forbidden Stories report, NSO’s spy software has been “abused” to target more than 50,000 phone numbers in more than 50 countries since 2016.
“The leaked data showed that at least 180 journalists have been selected as targets in countries like India, Mexico, Hungary, Morocco and France among others,” states the investigation. Further, 10 governments, including India’s, Azerbaijan’s and Saudi Arabia’s among others, are said to be the customers of the Israeli firm.
Forbidden Stories has shared the details of the alleged surveillance operation with 16 news organisations globally, including The Guardian and The Wire.
For its part, NSO Group has rejected the “false claims”.
“Such services are openly available to anyone, anywhere, and anytime, and are commonly used by governmental agencies for numerous purposes, as well as by private companies worldwide,” the company said in a statement.
“It is also beyond dispute that the data has many legitimate and entirely proper uses having 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 statement also read.
India Rejects Snooping Claims
The allegations that snooping was conducted using the Israeli spyware found their way into the Indian Parliament on Monday, as the parliamentarians convened for the Monsoon Session. Several opposition MPs demanded a discussion on the alleged spying scandal, with key opposition leader and Congress MP Rahul Gandhi taking potshots at the federal government.
In an official response to the claims, India’s federal Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) described the allegations as a “fishing expedition” with no “concrete basis or truth”.
“In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp by the Indian state. Those reports also had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including WhatsApp, in the Indian Supreme Court,” read the Indian statement.
Delhi also pointed out that it is “committed” to ensuring the right to privacy for all its citizens as a fundamental right, reflected in the introduction of the Personal Data Protection Bill in 2019, and the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules in 2021.
The two lawas cited by India in its defence aim to safeguard the rights of internet users by providing grievance redress mechanisms, among other provisions.