Ashwini Vaishnaw, the Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), said on Monday that reports that India used the Israeli spyware Pegasus to hack the phones of journalists, activists, and ministers were nothing more than an “attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions.”

Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, speaking in Parliament for the first time as the new MeitY minister, said the “highly sensational story” has made several “over the top allegations,” but that there is “no substance behind them.”

“It is not a coincidence that the reports have been published a day before the monsoon session of Parliament,” he said. “In the past, similar allegations were made about the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp but there is no factual basis to these and have been categorically denied.”

According to an international collaborative investigation involving 17 media organisations including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Die Zeit, India was among the countries that used Israeli company NSO Group’s Pegasus phone hacking software to potentially target politicians, journalists, and activists. One of the 17 was The Wire, an Indian news website.

The inferences from the leaked dataset were deceptive, according to NSO Group, in a statement to Forbidden Stories and its media partners. “The alleged amount of ‘leaked data of more than 50,000 phone numbers,’ cannot be a list of numbers targeted by governments using Pegasus,” it said, and added that it “does not have insight into the specific intelligence activities of its customers.”

The report, according to Vaishnaw, had several inconsistencies. “One report clearly states that the presence of a number on NSO’s list does not mean it is under surveillance,” he said. “The consortium has accessed a leaked database of 40,000 numbers. The presence of the number does not indicate whether there was an attempted hack or a successful one,” he said.

“The response also states that the names of the countries using Pegasus is incorrect,” the minister said, citing NSO’s statement calling the report deceptive.

“No form of illegal surveillance is possible with the kind of checks and balances instituted by the government,” he stated, citing the Telegraph Act and the Information Technology Act.

Also read | ‘Project Pegasus’ exposes snooping of journos, activists, politicians across India

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