India’s Parliament erupted in protests on Tuesday as opposition lawmakers accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists.
The session was disrupted repeatedly as opposition lawmakers shouted slogans against Modi’s government and demanded an investigation into how the spyware, known as Pegasus, was used in India.
“This is a national security threat,” an opposition Congress party official, Kapil Sibal, said at a news conference.
The protests came after an investigation by a global media consortium was published on Sunday. Based on leaked targeting 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.
Newly appointed information technology minister Ashwani Vaishnaw dismissed the allegations on Monday, calling them “highly sensational,” “over the top,” and “an attempt to malign the Indian democracy.”
Minutes after his 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 Bharatiya Janata Party at that time.
NSO Group has said it only sells its spyware 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.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that his office will investigate the charges and “take appropriate action” if indicated.
Gantz on Tuesday stressed that “as a matter of policy, the State of Israel authorizes the export of cyber products solely to governments, only for lawful use, and exclusively for the purposes of preventing and investigating crime and terrorism. The countries acquiring these systems must abide by their commitments to these requirements. We are currently studying the information that is published on the subject,” The Times of Israel quoted him as saying.
Gantz, who was speaking at a Cyber Week conference at Tel Aviv University, did not mention NSO Group by name.
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.”
The former IT minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, said there was “not a shred of evidence linking Indian government or the BJP” to the allegations. Prasad called it an international plot to defame India.
Rights groups say the findings bolster accusations that not just autocratic regimes but also democratic governments, including India, have used the spyware for political ends.
It has also intensified concerns of a democratic backsliding and erosion of civil liberties under Modi. Recently, the Washington-based Freedom House downgraded India, the world’s most populous democracy, from “free” to “partly free.”
Reporting by the Associated Press.