Indian parliament’s Pegasus investigation leaves crucial questions unanswered

After a disconcerting parliamentary committee meeting held in India today, July 28, Access Now is calling on authorities to respond to the Pegasus Project revelations in a sustained, independent, and inclusive manner that effects change and protects fundamental rights. 

The Pegasus Project’s appalling exposé last week illuminated the extent to which India’s democracy is under attack. The nation is the world’s largest democracy, where the Constitution guarantees the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. However, people from all pillars of society – from the judiciary and parliament, to the media – are grappling with the possibility that their devices have been transformed into tools for covert surveillance through Pegasus spyware.

“This malicious targeting of people across India and the globe is a serious threat to our democracy,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Senior International Counsel and Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now. “The allegations that the private digital devices of individuals are being targeted for hacking in order to facilitate opaque, lawless surveillance must be answered with immediate responsibility, remedy, and reform by Indian policymakers across all party lines.”

To date, parliamentary proceedings seeking answers to this scandal in India have faced stonewalling by ministers, and failed to generate meaningful engagement. Representatives of the information technology and home ministries, who had been summoned to today’s parliamentary committee meeting, chose to absent themselves — a reflection of elected leaders’ abandoned responsibility, and disregard for serious human rights impacts. One Indian state has set up an inquiry commission to probe the matter independently given the denial and deadlock at the federal level in New Delhi. While Access Now welcomes this initial step, more action must be taken at a national scale to catalyze reform, and safeguard India’s democratic future.

“The Pegasus Project is not a surveillance scandal that will fade from public memory. It is reflective of a state of lawlessness and surveillance impunity across the globe, and underscores the urgent need for reform,” said Natalia Krapiva, Tech Legal Counsel at Access Now.

Hacking is not lawful under Indian law, and opposition leaders have called this an instance of authorities “insert[ing] a weapon in our phones,” and using it to “hit the soul of India’s democracy.” The government, however, claims that there are sufficient safeguards in India’s surveillance regime. Under current laws — which have been challenged before Indian courts — the executive branch has unchecked and extremely broad powers of surveillance that are devoid of any meaningful safeguards, with no judicial authorisation or independent oversight, and therefore violate the fundamental right to privacy protected under the Constitution. 

Read Access Now’s policy brief on the Pegasus Project, implications for Indian policymakers, and the necessary steps that need to be taken to protect fundamental rights.