India In Denial As Other Democracies Probe Pegasus Charges

India In Denial As Other Democracies Probe Pegasus Charges

French President Macron has spoken to Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, to ensure that the Israeli government is “properly investigating” the allegations.

After the Pegasus ‘snooping’ expose by a consortium of 17 media houses shook the global politics, there have been varying reactions from those who were allegedly snooped upon and governments that have been accused of snooping.

Talking of home, the Indian government has so far maintained that this has been done to malign the Indian democracy.

IT Minister & NSO

A day after the first set of Pegasus Project stories broke, newly appointed IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw rose in Lok Sabha to offer explanation. In an impassioned attempt to refute the allegations, Mr Vaishnaw stressed that mere presence of numbers on this alleged list did not mean they were snooped upon.

However, many were baffled by the IT Minister refering to the statement by the NSO group, the Israeli company that owns Pegasus spyware, which rejected the allegations. Mr Vaishnaw, in his speech, said that NSO itself has denied the allegations, claiming that the news reports are based on ‘misleading interpretation’ of leaked data from basic information.

IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw addressing the parliament on Pegasus issue.

At a time when NSO is being blamed for letting its software be used for snooping on journalists, activists, politicians, human rights defenders and government officials, India’s IT Minister taking the NSO’s statement at the face value and refering to it in Parliament, when there should actually have been an inquiry into the allegations against the group, raises several questions on Indian government’s willingness to come clean on the matter.

However, in the contrast of the silence by the Indian government on the issue, many foreign countries have taken cognizance of this expose and ordered appropriate actions.

In this article, let us explore how different governements in the world have reacted to this story.

Macron calls Bennett

The Pegasus Report had exposed that Moroccan intelligence agencies may have snooped upon many French nationals, including President Emmanuel Macron. The President’s number appeared on the list of 50,000 numbers at the centre of this expose.

On Sunday, reports suggested that French President Macron has spoken to Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, to ensure that the Israeli government is “properly investigating” allegations that the French president could have been targeted with Israeli-made spyware by Morocco’s security services.

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) reportedly called Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to ensure that allegations against the NSO group are “properly investigated”.

In a phone call, Macron expressed concern that his phone and those of most of his cabinet could have been infected with Pegasus, hacking software developed by the Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group, the Guardian reported.

The Macron-Bennett phone call reportedly took place on Thursday, but was first reported by Israel’s Channel 12 News on Saturday evening after the end of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

According to Channel 12, an unnamed source said Bennett had stressed that the alleged events occurred before he took office in May, and that a commission was examining whether rules on Israel’s export of cyberweapons such as Pegasus should be tightened.

French Open Probe

Other than Macron’s call to Israeli PM, French prosecutors in Paris have also opened a probe into allegations that Moroccan intelligence services used the Israeli malware Pegasus to spy on several French journalists.

The investigation will examine 10 different charges, including whether there was a breach of personal privacy, fraudulent access to personal electronic devices, and criminal association.

Investigative website Mediapart filed a legal complaint on Monday, and investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchaine is set to follow suit, over the spying claims, which Morocco has denied.

“Countries must meet terms of use”: Israel Defence Minister

Israel, home to the Pegasus owner NSO, has been defending the allegations, though the furore since the last week has been rising.

The Israeli defence minister, Benny Gantz, was forced to defend granting export licenses for the software sold by NSO Group to foreign governments, claiming that “countries that purchase these systems must meet the terms of use”, which are solely for criminal and terrorism investigations.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz suggested that countries using the spyware “must meet the terms of use”.

Reports have since emerged that the Israeli government is setting up a multi-agency task force to deal with the fallout and investigate whether “policy changes” are needed regarding sensitive cyber exports.

Mexican First Lady calls for action

In Mexico, the first lady, Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller, called on the attorney general’s office to investigate the revelations made by the Pegasus project, breaking ranks with her husband who said he would not make a criminal complaint into the number of politicians and innocent civilians whose mobile numbers appeared in the leaked list.

At least 50 people around the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador – known as Amlo – – including Gutiérrez Müller, three sons, three brothers, aids, advisers and even his cardiologist, were among those of potential interest to clients of NSO, according to the Pegasus project investigation.

Mexico was NSO’s first client and three security agencies are known to have operated Pegasus over the past decade.

Mexican First Lady demanded investigation into Pegasus row, going against her husband’s position on the issue.

Amlo said the federal government no longer spied on political opponents, journalists or activists, and that any existing Pegasus contracts would be cancelled.

In a statement, the attorney general’s office said the NSO contracts signed by the fugitive Tomás Zerón, who was director of the criminal investigation agency (AIC) under Enrique Peña Nieto, were subject to an ongoing criminal investigation. Zerón fled to Israel last year to escape charges of embezzlement, torture and forced disappearence.

British Embarrassed

In the aftermath of revelations that more than 400 UK phone numbers appeared in the leaked list, questions were asked in the British parliament led by Lady Uddin, an independent peer, who herself was among those whose numbers were listed.

The principal government responsible for selecting the UK numbers between 2017 and 2019 appears to have been the United Arab Emirates, traditionally a British ally, in a case that has the potential to be politically embarrassing for both sides, the Guardian reported.

A day earlier, a UK government minister, Lord True, had told the Lords that “we have raised our concerns several times with the government of Israel about NSO’s operations”.

UK government minister Lord True said they have frequently raised concerns with Israel government over NSO’s operations.

Human rights lawyers said they were examining the reports carefully and were seeking to prepare civil action to force further disclosures from NSO Group.

“Concerning,” says the US

The US has said it is against the use of spying technology on civil society, regime critics and journalists through “extrajudicial means”.

Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson told reporters during a news conference: “The whole notion of using this type of technology against civil society, or regime critics, or journalists, or anybody like that through extrajudicial means is always concerning.”

Moreover, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he will raise human rights and civil liberties issues, in talks with his Indian counterpart next week, including India’s alleged use of spyware.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to meet Indian EAM S Jaishankar next week.

Specifically with regards to the alleged use by New Delhi of the Pegasus spyware, Thomson said the US is concerned about the whole notion of using this type of technology against civil society, or regime critics, or journalists, or anybody like that through extrajudicial means.

“We don’t have any particular special insights into the India case. I know this is a broader issue, but I will say that we’ve been quite vocal about trying to find ways for companies to be able to ensure that their technology is not used in these types of ways. And we will certainly continue to press those issues,” he added.

NSO & Accused reject claims

Along with the NSO group, the governments accused of snooping upon their own or foreign nationals somewhat maintained a same line.

Where India has said these are attempts to malign Indian democracy, Morocco, accused of snooping upon French nationals and its own King, said it “categorically rejects” claims its intelligence services had used Israeli spyware Pegasus.

Hungary issued a similar kind of statement. “The government has no knowledge of this type of data collection,” Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told a press conference, adding that Hungary’s civilian intelligence agency did not use the Pegasus software “in any way”.

In its latest statement in response to the Pegasus project stories, NSO said that “in light of the recent planned and well-orchestrated media campaign led by Forbidden Stories and pushed by special interest groups, and due to the complete disregard of the facts, NSO is announcing it will no longer be responding to media inquiries on this matter and it will not play along with the vicious and slanderous campaign.

“We will state again: the list is not a list of targets or potential targets of Pegasus. The numbers in the list are not related to NSO group. Any claim that a name in the list is necessarily related to a Pegasus target or Pegasus potential target is erroneous and false.”

India’s position and ramifications

Though several democracies have ordered an inquiry into the allegations of snooping or called upon Israel to look into the allegations, Indian government has so far done neither.

However, reports suggest that the Indian client of NSO bought the spyware after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel in 2017 where he met PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Modi and Netanyahu reportedly shared a very cordial relationship.

As facts point out that the NSO provided the spyware only to “vetted governments” and it could not have happened without the permission of Israeli government led by Netanyahu back then, the Indian government is caught in a catch 22 situation. It has rejected the theory of the alleged numbers being on the list for surveillance, corroborating the version offered by the NSO group. However, it has not made its stand clear on whether the Indian government, through intelligence agency, bought the Pegasus spyware, even for the surveillance of those involved in terrorist activities or other criminal cases.

It also needs to shed a light on the possibility that if it has not bought the spyware, then such spying of prominent Indian nationals is an eminent threat to national security and should be investigated.

As reports also reveal that the Indian clients of NSO had a number of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the list of potential targets, it will be more difficult for the Indian government to provide clarification on it to other democracies.

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