IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has slammed the release of "over-the-top" media reports about the government's use of Israeli spyware Pegasus to spy on opposition leaders and journalists, and said it "can't be a coincidence" they were published a day before the start of Parliament's monsoon session.
Addressing the Lok Sabha on a day punctuated by fierce protests from the opposition, Mr Vaishnaw insisted there was "no substance behind this sensational" claim and that "checks and balances" ensured that illegal surveillance is "not possible".
"A highly sensational story was published by a web portal last night. Many over-the-top allegations (were) made around this story. The press reports appeared a day before (the) monsoon session of Parliament. This can't be a coincidence."
"In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp. Those reports had no factual basis and were denied by all parties. Press reports of 18 July also appear to be an attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions," he added.
Hours later US publication The Washington Post named Mr Vaishnaw on the list of people whose phones were hacked, or identified for hacking. According to a report by The Wire, phone numbers registered to Mr Vaishnaw and his wife "appear in the leaked records in the latter half of 2017".
Mr Vaishnaw - widely seen as a big winner in this month's cabinet reshuffle after getting charge of the IT and Railways ministries - was neither a member of the government nor Rajya Sabha at the time, or even of the BJP.
He has yet to comment on his name appearing in the list.
Other high-profile names on the list released today include Mr Vaishnaw's cabinet colleague Prahlad Singh Patel, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi and poll strategist Prashant Kishor, whose phone was reportedly hacked as recently as July 14.
Another name is Ashok Lavasa - the former Election Commissioner who recorded a dissenting opinion when the election body ruled in favour of the Prime Minister during the 2019 election.
The Wire, in a report published yesterday, said several phone numbers, including those of a sitting Supreme Court judge and current and former heads of security organisations, were on a list of people to be targeted between 2017 and 2019, and in the run-up to the 2019 general election.
The Wire has said there is not enough evidence to suggest all phones on the list had been hacked.
The government has hit back strongly and has insisted there is no concrete basis to these claims. Yesterday, a source in the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology told NDTV the government had "nothing to fear and nothing to hide".
Israeli company NSO Group, which sells Pegasus, has denied the allegations and claimed it only offers its product to "vetted governments". The company is "considering a defamation lawsuit".
In 2019 WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in a US court, accusing the NSO Group of helping government spies hack the phones of 1,400 users, including Indian journalists and activists.
WhatsApp chief Will Carter tweeted links to report on Pegasus and said: "Human rights defenders, tech companies and governments must work together to increase security and hold abusers of spyware accountable...".
Human rights defenders, tech companies and governments must work together to increase security and hold the abusers of spyware accountable. Microsoft was bold in their actions last week https://t.co/dbRgdfTIcA— Will Cathcart (@wcathcart) July 18, 2021