Pegasus spyware trotting into ministers’ phones, who is next?

In Parliament, IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw dismissed surveillance of journalists, however he too is on the ‘list’ say latest reports

Pegasus SpywareImage

“A highly sensational story was published by a web portal last night. Many over-the-top allegations made around this story. The press reports appeared a day before the monsoon session of Parliament. This can’t be a coincidence,” said the new Information and Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw (also minister of communications, electronics, and railways), addressing the Lok Sabha, on the ‘Pegasus Project’.

On Sunday July 19, it had been revealed that the Israeli spyware Pegasus had been used to target many journalists including over 40 from India. The Wire news portal broke the story in India, and its founding editors Sidharth Vardharajan, and MK Venu were on the list of journalists being tracked along with their investigative writer Rohini Singh and others.  

The IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw reportedly viewed the report as “over-the-top” given how it alleged the government’s use of Pegasus to spy on opposition leaders, journalists and others, including its own ministers and a sitting judge of the Supreme Court. He said that it “can’t be a coincidence” that they were published a day before the opening of Parliament’s monsoon session. 

The Minister has insisted that “there is no substance behind this sensationalism” and has hit out  at the media reporting on the matter since July 18 saying that it appeared “to be an attempt to malign the Indian democracy and its well established institutions.” According to Vaishnaw “the report itself clarifies that presence of a number does not amount to snooping.” His entire statement is in the public domain and may be read here: But all of this took an interesting direction, when some media reports claimed that the minister’s name was also on the list!

But the bigger question is that why did a sitting minister have to make a statement that appears to be “defending” as some put it, the many allegations that have been made against Pegasus? Moreover, who has paid for the spyware to be embedded in the mobile phones of so many? 

The minister even read out what NSO, the company which owns the technology said in its own defence, “NSO Group believes that claims that you have been provided with, are based on misleading interpretation of leaked data from basic information, such as HLR Lookup services, which have no bearing on the list of the customers’ targets of Pegasus or any other NSO products. Such services are openly available to anyone, anywhere, and anytime, and are commonly used by governmental agencies as well as by private companies worldwide. It is also beyond dispute that the data has nothing to do with surveillance or with NSO, so there can be no factual basis to suggest that a use of the data somehow equates to surveillance.”

“In India,” said the minister, “there is a well established procedure through which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out for the purpose of national security, particularly on the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety, by agencies at the Centre and States. The requests for these lawful interception of electronic communication are made as per relevant rules under the provisions of section 5(2) of Indian Telegraph Act,1885 and section 69 of the Information TechnologyAct, 2000. Each case of interception or monitoring is approved by the competent authority.”

However, soon after Vaishnaw dismissed the news first  reported by The Wire, Washington Post, The Guardian and others, that in India over 40 journalists, three opposition leaders, a constitutional authority and two serving ministers had been subjected to surveillance, media outlets across the globe came to another revelation. Ashwini Vaishnaw was also one of ‘targets for surveillance’. At least his phone number was. The surveillance was reportedly done four years ago. According to a report in The Wire, the former Indian Administrative Service officer was listed for possible surveillance in 2017.  “Another number, apparently listed in the name of his wife, also appears to have been selected,” stated the news report.

The other minister on ‘the list’ is reportedly  Prahlad Singh Patel, minister of state for Jal Shakti. According to The Wire, there are “300 verified Indian numbers listed as potential targets for surveillance during 2017-2019 by a client of the Israel-based NSO group.” The others according to the report include Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, as well as the “personal secretary to Vasundhara Raje Scindia, when she was the BJP’s chief minister in Rajasthan, and Sanjay Kachroo, who worked as an officer on special duty (OSD) for Smriti Irani in her first years as a Union minister in the Modi government from 2014-2015.” The list also features Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s leader, Pravin Togadia, political strategist Prashant Kishor and many others.


According to a news report, there seems to be a ‘wide net’ of surveillance as not just the politicians but those associated with them also appear to be “potential targets” for surveillance. The global list is said to have as many as 50,000 phone numbers who may have been tracked “since 2016,” said reports. It was Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based nonprofit journalism organisation, and Amnesty International, who initially had access to the list and shared access with 16 media organisations including the Guardian, stated its news report. According to the Guardian over “80 journalists have worked together over several months as part of the Pegasus project. Amnesty’s Security Lab, a technical partner on the project, did the forensic analyses.”


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