Furore over snooping claims

India's parliament was disrupted for the second day running on Tuesday by noisy opposition calls for an investigation into reports of snooping on politicians and others with Israeli-made spyware Pegasus.

The parties, led by the main opposition Congress, shouted slogans and raised a ruckus in both houses of parliament that had reconvened on Monday after being cut short in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Shaktisinh Gohil, a Congress spokesman, said Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government should clearly say whether it used Pegasus to spy on dozens of politicians, journalists, activists and critics.

"If yes, then the government should order a joint parliamentary committee probe to investigate the entire matter," he told reporters in New Delhi.

In a statement, the Congress accused the Modi government of being the "deployer and executor" of a "spying racket". "This is clearly treason and total abdication of national security by the Modi government, more so when the foreign company could possibly have access to this data," said the Congress statement, which labelled Mr Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata party government as the "Bharatiya Jasoos (Spy) party".

"This is an unforgivable sacrilege and negation of constitutional oath by the home minister and the prime minister," it added.

Congress also held demonstrations in the heart of the capital before police intervened and detained several protesters.

Carrying banners, toy binoculars and magnifying glasses, the demonstrators accused the ruling party of ordering the hacking of smartphones and demanded the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah.

More than 1,000 Indian phone numbers were among tens of thousands worldwide selected as possibly of interest to clients of NSO Group, maker of the Pegasus spyware, according to an investigation by a group of media outlets.

The identities behind around 300 of the numbers were verified by the international consortium of media outlets and included Mr Modi's main political rival, Mr Rahul Gandhi of the Congress.

Others included Indian politicians, journalists, activists and government critics, as well as India's newly appointed IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw.

Also reported to be on the list was a woman who made sexual harassment allegations against India's former chief justice, as well as Tibetan Buddhist clerics, Pakistani diplomats and Chinese journalists.

It is not known how many of the phones on the list were actually targeted for surveillance or how many attempts were successful, according to the Washington Post, which was part of the joint international investigation.

But forensic analyses performed on 22 smartphones in India with numbers on the list showed that 10 were targeted with Pegasus, seven of them successfully, reports said.

The Indian government denied the allegations, with Mr Shah saying they were aimed to "humiliate India at the world stage" and "derail India's development trajectory".

Critics say India should state whether or not it had licensed the spyware from NSO.

NSO has said its product was intended only for use by vetted government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime.

The Israeli technology firm told NDTV on Tuesday that the list of Indian phone numbers reportedly targeted for surveillance by the government with its software is "not ours, never was".

"It is fabricated information. It is not a list of targets or potential targets of NSO's customers," the spokesperson said, adding "repeated reliance on this list and association of people on this list as potential surveillance targets is false and misleading".

The government said that any surveillance is done in accordance with strict rules.

Mr Vaishnaw told lawmakers on Monday there was no substance to the reports of spying.

India has a well-established procedure in which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out by federal and state agencies for the purpose of national security, particularly in the case of a public emergency or in the interest of public safety, he said.

Indian rules ensured that "unauthorised surveillance does not occur," he said.

But the minister did not say why his phone was hacked.

AFP, REUTERS

 
 
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