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Modi under fire in parliament protests over spyware in India

China Daily | Updated: 2021-07-22 10:16

India's Congress party workers try to cross police barricades as they take part in a demonstration against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi against alleged surveillance operation using the Pegasus spyware, in New Delhi on July 20, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

NEW DELHI-India's Parliament was beset by disruptions on Tuesday as opposition lawmakers accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists.

Opposition lawmakers made repeated outbursts against Modi's government and demanded an investigation into how the Israeli-made spyware, known as Pegasus, was used in India.

"This is a national security threat," an official from the opposition Congress party, Kapil Sibal, told a news conference.

The protests came after an investigation into the software by a global media consortium was published on Sunday.

Based on leaked data, the findings provided evidence that the spyware from Israel-based NSO Group, the world's most infamous hacker-for-hire company, was used to allegedly infiltrate devices belonging to a range of targets, including journalists, activists and political opponents, in 50 countries.

In India, the list of potential surveillance targets included senior Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, at least 40 journalists, a veteran election strategist critical of Modi and a top virologist, according to the investigation.

On Monday, newly appointed Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw dismissed the allegations, calling them "highly sensational", "over the top" and "an attempt to malign the Indian democracy".

Minutes after Vaishnaw's statement in Parliament, India's independent The Wire website-part of the media consortium-revealed that his name also appeared on the list as a potential surveillance target in 2017. He was not a member of Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at that time.

Dodging questions

The NSO Group has said it sells its spyware only to "vetted government agencies" for use against terrorists and major criminals. The Indian government has so far dodged questions over whether it is a client of the group.

A list of more than 50,000 mobile phone numbers was obtained by the Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories, and was then shared with 16 news organizations.

Journalists were able to identify more than 1,000 individuals in 50 countries who were allegedly selected by NSO clients for potential surveillance, including 300 verified Indian numbers, The Wire reported.

In India, the investigation fueled a slew of angry reactions from officials.

Home Minister Amit Shah called the investigation an attempt to "derail India's development trajectory through their conspiracies", and said it was "timed to cause disruptions in Parliament".

Gandhi, the most influential Indian name revealed so far, was Modi's main challenger in the 2014 and 2019 general elections. Two of his phone numbers used between mid-2018 and mid-2019, in the run-up to the last election, appear on the list.

Gandhi no longer has the devices so it was not possible to analyze them to determine if they had been hacked, The Wire reported. They also found at least nine numbers of people in Gandhi's circle.

The list included Gagandeep Kang, a top virologist; Prashant Kishor, a longtime political strategist who helped Modi to power in 2014 but is now one of his strongest opponents; and Ashok Lavasa, a former top official in India's Election Commission.

Agencies via Xinhua

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