Congress accuses govt of ‘snooping’, urges SC to hold Centre accountable

New Delhi: The Modi government has been “caught snooping” after WhatsApp said journalists and human rights activists in India have been targets of surveillance, the Congress alleged on Thursday and demanded a Supreme Court-monitored probe into the “illegal hacking” of cell phones.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said the government asking WhatsApp about ‘Pegasus’ was like Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking Dassault Aviation on who made money on the sale of Rafale jets to India.

“The Government seeking WhatsApp’s response on who bought Pegasus to spy on Indian citizens, is like Modi asking Dassault who made money on the sale of RAFALE jets to India,” he tweeted.

Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said India woke up today to a bone-chilling news of “flagrant abuse” of privacy by agencies of the present BJP government

“We urge upon the Supreme Court to take suo moto cognisance of this brazen and blatant illegal hacking of telephones and introduction of spyware by the BJP government agencies and conduct a court-monitored inquiry,” he said.

The Facebook-owned messeaging service has said that Indian scribes and human rights activists were among those globally spied upon by unnamed entities using an Israeli sypware Pegasus.

“The modus operandi was snooping, spying and compromising cell phones of journalists, Dalit activists, political and human right activists, lawyers, academicians and many more through a surveillance software called ‘Pegasus’ of Israeli agency NSO.

“We suspect that many opposition leaders and judges of the Supreme Court and high courts are on this list,” Surjewala said.

Pegasus is able to turn on a phone’s camera and microphone, crack the device’s security and send passwords, contact lists, calendar events, text messages and live voice calls, the Congress leader claimed.

“Of course, all this is done without the owner’s permission or knowledge. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, has admitted that nearly 1,400 people, majority of them Indians, have been affected by the ‘Pegasus’ spyware.

“The number may actually be much much larger, as admitted by Facebook, which has been unable to pinpoint the exact number of phones hacked by the spyware,” he said.

Surjewala said the BJP government has maintained a “conspiratorial silence” on the entire issue with the Information and Broadcasting Secretary and others refusing to respond.

Minister of Telecommunications Ravi Shankar Prasad in a tweet said, “Government has asked WhatsApp to escape snooping”. “Strategically, this is pot calling the kettle black,” he said.

But, Surjewala said the ‘Right to Privacy’ has been an anathema to the majoritarian BJP government and over the last five years it has done everything to “crush” the right of the citizens, including dissenting voices.

“It is time to remind the nation that the present BJP government is opposed to the ‘Right to Privacy’ to be read as part of the fundamental rights. It in fact argued that no Indian should have ‘Right to Privacy’ till the Supreme Court overrules and declares ‘Right to Privacy’ as a fundamental right,” he claimed.

Surjewala alleged that the BJP government has also sought to place a ‘multi-crore surveillance structure’ until its designs are stopped by the intervention of the top court.

“Instead of digressing from the issue of illegal, unconstitutional and unauthorised surveillance of citizens of India by asking WhatsApp to explain, let IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and the BJP government, who have been sworn to protect the Constitution answer which agency of the government of India has purchased and deployed the ‘Pegasus’ surveillance software,” he said.

“Who, PM or NSA, authorised the purchase of ‘Pegasus’ surveillance software? What action would the government take against those guilty of illegally and unconstitutionally hacking the telephones and spying on journalists, dalit, political and other activists, lawyers, academicians, opposition leaders and judges?” Surjewala asked.

In a series of tweets, he said, “Modi govt caught snooping! Appalling but not Surprising! After all, BJP Govt- 1. Fought against our right to privacy. 2. Set up a multi crore Surveillance Structure until stopped by SC.”

“SC must take immediate cognisance and issue notice to BJP government,” he said.

Surejwala said a government that spies on journalists, activists, opposition leaders and treats its citizens like “criminals has lost the right to lead in our democracy”.

“We urge the SC to take suo motu cognizance of these illegal activities and to hold this government to account,” he tweeted.

WhatsApp said it was suing NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm, that is reportedly behind the technology that helped unnamed entities’ spies to hack into phones of roughly 1,400 users.

These users span across four continents and included diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials. However, it did not say on whose behest the phones of journalists and activists across the world were targeted.

Tagging a media report which claimed that 1.3 million Indian payment card details are up for sale on the dark web, Surjewala also alleged that “data theft and data fraud” has become the norm since Modi government came to power.

“Is this why Modi ji calls Data the new Oil (for BJP Machine?). 1.3 million Indian Payment Card Details are up for sale on Dark Web putting the card holders vulnerable to yet another synchronised fraud,” he said.