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West Bengal government constitutes judicial panel to probe Pegasus spyware scandal

Since the Pegasus exposé, parliamentary proceedings have been disrupted and demands for an independent judicial investigation into the Pegasus controversy have only increased. 

The West Bengal government constituted a judicial panel headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Madan Bhimarao Lokur to probe the Pegasus spyware issue which has allegedly targeted various politicians, journalists, and members of civil society. This comes after a report by The Wire said that the mobile phone of election strategist Prashant Kishor, who was key to the Trinamool Congress’ win in the state elections this year, was hacked. The report also said that West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee’s phone number was “selected as a potential snoop target”.

Why it matters: It was this report of a “confirmed” spyware attack against Kishor which first indicated that there could be a political motive behind the alleged surveillance perpetrated using Israel-based NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. Prior to this, The Wire’s reports had named Congress politician Rahul Gandhi, a former Election Commission member, and several journalists as potential targets for surveillance using the spyware. The BJP-led central government has been under the scanner because the NSO Group had earlier stated that they sell their products only to vetted governments and government agencies. Many members of the Opposition have urged the government to initiate a probe into the matter.

In a brief press conference, Banerjee said, “In the exercise of the power conferred under the Sec 3 of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952 in the matter of widely reported illegal hacking, monitoring, putting under surveillance, tracking, recording etc of mobile phones of various persons in the State of West Bengal, the (West Bengal) cabinet has approved the appointment of a commission of enquiry consisting of honourable justice MB Lokur, retired judge of the supreme court and Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya, retired chief justice of Kolkata High Court.”

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What will the committee do? According to Banerjee, the committee will —

  • Look into who has been hacking into the phones of citizens of West Bengal
  • Investigate how this illegal operation is being perpetrated
  • Look into how speech is being stifled

You have all seen how journalists, judges, politicians, members of the civil society have been put under surveillance. We had thought that in the Monsoon Session, the Central government would initiate an investigation into the Pegasus issue and it would be entrusted to a judge from a Supreme Court, an institution people trust. [We took this step] when we saw this government, despite Parliament being in session, did not bat an eye towards the issue. We are the first State to do this, and I hope others awaken after this — Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister, West Bengal

Traces of Pegasus were found on Kishor’s phone

Amnesty’s forensic analysis of Kishor’s phone found traces of the Pegasus spyware on April 28, a day before the last polling of the West Bengal assembly elections. The spyware was also found to be activated for “14 days in June 2021 and 12 days in July 2021, including July 13, the day when he met Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi in Delhi. In fact, a hack of Kishor’s phone occurred even on the date that The Wire met him and Amnesty International helped conduct forensic analysis on it,” the report said.

The Wire report also said that forensic results on Kishor’s phone showed that the attack was done through the zero-click iMessage exploit, which essentially means that the virus was delivered on his iPhone through a vulnerability in iMessage, and did not require any clicks on spurious links like other traditional methods of hacking.

“If the use of such methods during Bengal elections are taken as test case then it is quite clear that such things hardly have any impact on the electoral outcome. Having said so, there is no denying that those who would did so were looking to take undue advantage of their position of power with the help of illegal snooping — Kishor told The Wire

Growing clamour for an enquiry from Parliamentarians

Tensions have been high between the government and opposition parties since the start of the Parliament’s monsoon session on Monday. This has led to disrupted proceedings of Parliament, with the Rajya Sabha being adjourned three times in one day. There were similar disruptions in the Lok Sabha as well. Many members of the opposition have asked for a debate and an investigation into the use of the Pegasus spyware.

Manickam Tagore: Indian National Congress MP Manickam Tagore filed an adjournment motion in the Parliament’s Lok Sabha to discuss the Pegasus spyware attack that was perpetrated on many Indians and the Indian government’s alleged role in it, the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee announced. In his notice, Tagore who is a Member of Parliament from the Virudhunagar Constituency in Tamil Nadu, said that he sought an adjournment, “to discuss the alleged role of the Government towards utilising Israeli Pegasus spyware as the weapon against Indian opposition leaders, Chief Justice of India, Election Commissioner of India, CBI Director, women journalists, MPs of BJP and direct the government to constitute Supreme Court-monitored probe.”

Thol Thirumavalavan: Lok Sabha MP Thol Thirumavalavan who represents the Mangalur LS constituency in Tamil Nadu urged the Indian government to order an independent judicial investigation into the Pegasus controversy. In a statement, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) president had said, “Supreme Court had ruled that privacy is a fundamental right and it is illegal for Indian government to have used Pegasus to violate the privacy of its citizens by snooping on them. #VCK urges the Union government to order an independent judicial investigation.”

John Brittas: Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas while seeking a court-monitored probe by a Special Investigation Team into the Pegasus scandal filed a writ petition in Supreme Court. The petition, according to Live Law, highlighted a statement by newly-appointed Union IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw who neither denied nor admitted to the snooping allegations. “It is only an evasive statement from the government. The government has unequivocally accepted the statement of the company, NSO which owns the alleged spyware technology and blindly accepted their version without any investigation,” the petition was quoted as saying by LiveLaw.

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

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