A row is underway in Andhra Pradesh, with questions arising over whether the previous state government under the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and ex-Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, purchased the controversial Pegasus spyware.

The YS Jagan Mohan Reddy-led government has decided to set up a Legislature House Committee to probe if Andhra Pradesh, under Chandrababu Naidu, had purchased Pegasus. On March 21, even as the TDP denied these claims, the state government now led by Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSRCP, decided to set up a Legislature House Committee to probe the issue.

The furore was sparked after West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee levelled allegations over the spyware. Speaking in the Assembly, Mamata said that the West Bengal state police was approached around four to five years ago with an offer to buy the controversial Israeli spyware for Rs 25 crore.

The Chief Minister said she had turned it down when she came to know of it. However, during her disclosure in the Assembly, she also claimed that the Andhra government “had it during Chandrababu (Naidu)’s time.”

It was this claim that sparked a controversy in the state. Andhra Legislative Affairs Minister Buggana Rajendranath moved a motion in the Assembly on March 21, saying it was clear from Mamata Banerjee’s statement that the Chandrababu government purchased spyware technology either officially or unofficially.

“It is clear that the Chandrababu regime acquired such technology to hack the phones and other gadgets of individuals to listen to conversations and also watch the activities live. Naturally, their targets were political leaders, especially the opposition leader, industrialists, film personalities and even wives and husbands,” Buggana alleged.

Since then, former Director General of Police (DGP) Gautam Sawang himself clarified that no such software was ever purchased by the government. Director General of Police-rank IPS officer AB Venkateswara Rao, against whom the Jagan government made allegations over Pegasus, also maintained that no such purchase was ever made.

“As long as I was the Intelligence chief (till April 2019), Pegasus or any such spyware was not purchased. That’s final. You have to ask the present government if anything was bought after May 2019,” Venkateswara Rao told reporters.

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Meanwhile, the TDP said it was ready for any inquiry, be it a House Committee, a judicial inquiry or a CBI investigation. The whole row, from Mamata Banerjee’s statement to the Andhra government’s decision to form a committee, has raised one question: Can a state government purchase the Pegasus spyware?

Pegasus is a spyware that can be used to target Android or iOS phones and turn these into surveillance devices. The Israeli company NSO Group, which owns Pegasus, says that it is only sold to state actors. While the earliest version of the hacking software was spotted by researchers in 2016, the issue gained traction in India in July 2021 after an international media consortium revealed how Pegasus was used to potentially surveil over 50,000 phone numbers worldwide including over 300 from India. The list in India included the contacts of over 40 journalists, opposition leaders, a former Supreme Court judge, and several businesspersons and activists.

The Indian government first dismissed the allegations of any kind of surveillance on its part on specific people, saying it “has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever.” It also asserted that “India is a robust democracy that is committed to ensuring the right to privacy to all its citizens as a fundamental right.” However the government has neither confirmed nor denied that it has purchased Pegasus in the Supreme Court.

After the case went to court, the Supreme court in October 2021 appointed an independent expert technical committee, supervised by a retired top court judge, Justice RV Raveendran, to probe the allegations and said it was compelled to take up the case to determine the truth. While the panel is learnt to have submitted an interim report apprising the apex court about the progress on the probe in February, further details of its investigation are awaited.

In January this year, the Union government drew flak after a New York Times report claimed that India bought the Pegasus spyware in 2017 as part of a defence deal with Israel. The media outlet reported that the Israeli spyware and a missile system were the ‘centrepieces’ of a deal between the two countries worth roughly $2 billion. After the report surfaced, the Congress and Left parties attacked the Union government and said that the move amounted to treason.

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So can Pegasus be purchased and used by state governments? The simple answer is yes.  As per the company’s website, “NSO products are used exclusively by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight crime and terror.” It also said that its “vetting process goes beyond legal and regulatory requirements to ensure the lawful use of our technology as designed.”

According to various media organisations that have unearthed the Pegasus scandal, NSO gives Pegasus only to ‘vetted’ governments, which largely means federal governments or central agencies, but this doesn’t rule out state governments. It only means there is no proof till now of any such transaction.

In November 2019, the Chhattisgarh government had formed its own committee to probe the allegations that Pegasus was used on residents of the state.  In the order issued by Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, the state said that complaints were received that NSO group had made a presentation to the Chhattisgarh Police on the spyware when the state was being ruled by the BJP. However, over two years later, there has been no update on the inquiry. The West Bengal government had also formed a similar panel, whose proceedings were later stayed by the Supreme Court.

While several state leaders have said that they were approached by the NSO group to sell Pegasus to their local law enforcement agencies, concrete proof is yet to emerge that a state government has used the spyware.

Speaking to #KhabarLive, Apar Gupta, lawyer and Executive Director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) said, “The legal powers for interception which are available to the Union government are similarly available to the state governments through the Home Secretary, and can be utilised by the state governments.”

“There are allegations that are routinely made, more recently in Maharashtra and Rajasthan, that these (surveillance) powers have been used for political purposes. In terms of procurement of spyware by state governments, there is past evidence demonstrating that spyware has been procured by them or at least presentations have been made towards such procurement,” he added.

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As far as the case in Andhra Pradesh is concerned, Apar said that there is no conclusive evidence yet that Pegasus was purchased by the Chandrababu Naidu government, and that the issue needed further investigation. However, even as the row is underway, YSRCP spokesperson G Amarnath told that the present Andhra Pradesh government under Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy has been using spyware for telephone tapping and other purposes but only to keep a tab on anti-social elements. The spokesperson said that it was being done only for the purposes of state security and not for any political means.

“If you ask if your government is using it, yes, in the interest of the state and security. Not to snoop on (Leader of Opposition) Chandrababu Naidu and listen to his private conversations,” Amarnath said.

When the Pegasus row had surfaced in India, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) had highlighted that they had written to the governments of Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, the states where the most number of people were allegedly hacked, with a list of suggestions, and recommending the establishment of an investigation committee. The IFF urged the states to allow victims and experts in the field of data privacy to testify before the committee and also facilitate the registration of FIRs.

Asking the committee to operate in a transparent manner, it also said that its report must be filed in a fixed timeline.“This issue does not exist as only a matter of legality. A serious crime has been committed against the Indian citizens that requires immediate action,” the IFF wrote.

Pointing out that concrete action is yet to be taken on the issue, Apar said, “Our experience with state governments has been that they have not proceeded with any degree of transparency in conducting any investigations, if any have been conducted. It shows that cutting across party lines, there is an existing political interest for the party in power to maintain large surveillance powers which can quite often be used against political opponents rather than people who threaten state security.” #KhabarLive #hydnews