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In a letter sent today to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, 17 persons who were informed by WhatsApp Inc that their electronic devices had been targeted by advanced spyware, Pegasus, have demanded a detailed probe into the cyber-attack that occurred earlier this year. The Standing Committee, chaired by Dr. Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP from Thiruvananthpuram, is scheduled to meet tomorrow, November 20th, to discuss a variety of issues. Through this letter, the Pegasus Targeted Persons have informed the Standing Committee that they are willing to depose personally before it, and have urged it to use its powers to summon records and officials from the relevant government departments to find out who carried out and authorized this widespread illegal surveillance, what was the role of the state and central governments in this operation, and which all individuals have been affected by this.

Calling themselves “a group of human rights defenders – academics, cultural activists, journalists, lawyers, researchers and students – united by our commitment to democratic rights, constitutional freedoms and the rule of law,” the signatories say that their work involves “defending the rights of farmers, workers and marginalised communities like Adivasis, Dalits, and Muslims as well as the rights of those who have been wrongfully targeted and arrested in the so called ‘Bhima-Koregaon case’.” They write that this snooping “is a violation of our fundamental right to privacy and compromises our safety and security, as well as the privacy, safety and security of our families, friends, colleagues, clients and any and every citizen who has communicated with us through our mobile devices.”

It should be recalled that around 29th October 2019, activists, lawyers, journalists of various hues from all across the country had received messages from WhatsApp, Inc informing them that their phones/ electronic devices may have been the target of a very sophisticated spyware, Pegasus, developed by an Israeli company called the NSO Group. Currently, this is the subject of a lawsuit brought about by Facebook Inc (parent company of WhatsApp, Inc) against NSO Group, accusing the latter of unauthorized and illegal use of WhatsApp to plant this spyware on electronic devices of targets which allows a remote operator to have access to all of the device’s contents, including call logs, contact lists, internal memory, media files, passwords, text messages and voice calls. Furthermore, the spyware allows the remote operator to switch-on the phone’s camera and microphone at will and capture the real-time activity in the immediate vicinity of the mobile device.

Calling attention to the statement of the Information Technology Minister, the letter says –
“A statement from Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister for Information Technology on 31 October 2019 adds to our concerns. It suggests that this targeting of human rights defenders and civil society activists has been carried out without the knowledge and permission of the Government of India. If this is true, the Pegasus attacks have serious implications for national security. The fact that foreign private companies and other foreign actors have penetrated the national telecommunications infrastructure without detection by Indian security agencies, and now possess the ability to access and extract the most intimate details of so many Indian citizens, is a violation of international norms and is a direct attack on our national sovereignty.”

Apart from seeking an opportunity to provide oral testimony before the Standing Committee, the letter also urges to committee to probe into this cyber-attack and seek information into the following questions –

“1. Which agencies and entities are carrying out this targeted and unauthorised surveillance of Indian citizens?
2. Are sections of the Indian government, central or state, involved in deployment of the Pegasus software?
3. Has public money been expended for these illegal and unauthorised attacks? Who authorised this expenditure?
4. Are central security agencies aware of the presence of NSO Group employees and operatives in India? Have these operatives entered the country legally?
5. Who were the individuals under surveillance by the Central or State agencies using this or other related technology?
6. What steps is the government taking to identify and bring to book the entities involved in the Pegasus attacks and other possible instances of illegal and unauthorised surveillance of Indian citizens?
7. What steps is the government taking to identify and repair the breaches in the national telecommunications infrastructure and protect it against any further attacks?
8. In the interests of transparent, accountable and responsive governance, we urge you to also make public the details of the companies, agencies and other entities authorised by the Government of India to carry out surveillance in accordance with legal provisions. What are the terms and conditions that govern the operations of these agencies? What are the arrangements for monitoring and overseeing their work?”

This letter has been signed by Ajmal Khan, Alok Shukla, Anand Teltumbde, Ankit Grewal, Asish Gupta, Balla Ravindranath, Bela Bhatia, Degree Prasad Chouhan, Jagdish Meshram , Mandeep Singh, Nihalsing B Rathod, Rupali Jadhav, Shalini Gera, Sushil, Vidhya , Vira Sathidar and Vivek Sundara.

Pegasus Targeted Persons had also sent an open letter to the Government of India, including the President, Prime Minister, IT Minister and Home Secretary, on 12th November 2019, seeking responses to similar queries. However, no reply or acknowledgement of those letters has been received thus far.

For information or queries- please write to:
Pegasus Targeted Persons – secureyourself91@gmail.com


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