Amid the uproar over The Wire report that phone numbers of Indian journalists were on the hacking list of an unidentified agency using the Pegasus software, the centre stuck to its earlier position that "no unauthorised interception" took place.
Sources in the government told NDTV that it has "nothing to hide" and "nothing to fear" and that they are ready to "reply to any query". They also said that the "news article proves nothing" and "previous attempts at Pegasus-government link have failed". The sources also said the government is readying a "strong defence" to the political storm the issue is likely to raise.
A response by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to a media questionnaire said that in the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of the software 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. This news report, thus, also appears to be a similar fishing expedition, based on conjectures and exaggerations to malign the Indian democracy and its institutions," the government said.
In late 2019, WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in a US court, accusing Israeli surveillance firm NSO of helping government spies break into the phones of about 1,400 users across four continents.
Following reports that journalists and activists in India were also targeted,then IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told Rajya Sabha that "no unauthorised interception" took place. "Any violation of the procedure is actionable in law. Anyone who has a problem can file an FIR or a formal complaint and the government will look into it. No unauthorised interception has been done," he told the Upper House.
In response to an RTI query then, the Ministry of Home Affairs had denied purchasing or planning to purchase the Pegasus software.
In its statement today, the MeitY said India is a robust democracy that is committed to ensuring the right to privacy to all its citizens as a fundamental right.
"In furtherance of this commitment, it has also introduced the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 and the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, to protect the personal data of individuals and to empower users of social media platforms," the statement said.
"We have always strived to attain an informed citizenry with an emphasis on a culture of open dialogue. However, the questionnaire sent to the Government of India indicates that the story being crafted is one that is not only bereft of facts but also founded in pre-conceived conclusions. It seems you are trying to play the role of an investigator, prosecutor as well as jury," the statement added.
"Considering the fact that answers to the queries posed have already been in public domain for a long time, it also indicates poorly conducted research and lack of due diligence by the esteemed media organizations involved. Government of India's response to a Right to Information application about the use of Pegasus has been prominently reported by media and is in itself sufficient to counter any malicious claims about the alleged association between the Government of India and Pegasus. India's Minister of Electronics & IT has also spoken in detail, including in the Parliament, that there has been no unauthorised interception by Government agencies," the ministry said.
"It is important to note that Government agencies have a well established protocol for interception, which includes sanction and supervision from highly ranked officials in central & state governments, for clear stated reasons only in national interest. The allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever," it added in its reply.