Top government officers of at least three ministries were forced to wait for over two hours at the Parliament Annexe building on Wednesday, even as Lok Sabha members entered into a fierce argument over referring the recent WhatsApp snooping controversy to the standing committee on citizens' data security and privacy.
While BJP members claimed that only the Speaker could decide whether the committee can look into issues of data security, those from the opposition wondered why the issue was not raised when the agenda was circulated earlier. "Heated arguments took place between opposition and government representatives, and it was finally decided that they should vote on the matter," a member of the standing committee told NDTV.
Another argument followed on whether the parliamentarians should go for secret voting or an open ballot, but they eventually settled on the latter. "Twelve voted for the committee to look into the issue and twelve voted against. The meeting started only after committee head Shashi Tharoor cast his deciding vote, taking the count to 13:12," the member said, adding that the Trimanool Congress, the DMK, the Shiv Sena and the Congress voted in favour of scrutiny by the panel.
Incidentally, officials from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Ministry of Home Affairs and the Department of Atomic Energy had come to represent the government before the standing committee. However, after being made to wait for over two hours, Union Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla left the spot to attend to a visiting Uzbekistan delegation along with Home Minister Amit Shah in North Block.
Bureaucrats representing the Information and Technology Department later told the committee that WhatsApp had "expressed regret" over the privacy breach in a letter to the government. "We also informed the standing committee about vulnerable areas and are working to resolve them," a senior official said, adding that WhatsApp has sought closer engagement with the government on the issue.
According to participants of the meet, the committee was also assured of the government's commitment to safeguarding the privacy of all citizens. "We also told them how the government has asked WhatsApp to reinforce its security wall and issued a warning that no further breach would be appreciated," another official told NDTV.
However, a query by committee members on whether the government had used Pegasus spyware to snoop on journalists and activists failed to draw a definite response from the officials present.
The snooping controversy broke earlier this month, when WhatsApp revealed that 121 Indian journalists and activists were among 1,400 mobile phone users across the globe to be targeted with Pegasus, a spyware created by Israel-based firm NSO. With the company claiming that its software was only licensed to "vetted and legitimate government agencies", opposition parties have accused the centre of "snooping" on Indian citizens to protect its political interests.
A 31-member committee headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor is questioning government officials on the matter.