The government has “no proposal for banning any ‘NSO Group’” and has no information on whether or not the United States has blacklisted the Israeli firm that developed the Pegasus spyware, the junior IT Minister told Parliament today in response to a question from two Samajwadi Party MPs.
The Samajwadi Party MPs – Vishambhar Prasad Nishad and Sukhram Singh Yadav – also asked the government for reasons the NSO Group and Candiru (another Israeli firm operating in the cyber-surveillance space) had not been banned in India.
To the latter question, however, the government did not provide an answer.
Earlier this month the US did, in fact, place the NSO Group and Candiru on a trade blacklist, saying they sold spyware to foreign governments that used it to target officials, journalists and others.
The US’ Commerce Department said the Israeli companies (and two others – one each from Russia and Singapore) had trafficked in cyber tools used to gain unauthorised access to computer network, and engaged in activities contrary to the United States’ national security or foreign policy interests.
The NSO Group has expressed its dismay over the US’ decision since its technologies “support US national security interests and policies by preventing terrorism and crime”.
The Pegasus scandal erupted earlier this year (ahead of the monsoon session of Parliament) after an international media consortium, including The Wire in India, said phone numbers of opposition leaders and journalists critical of the BJP were found on a database of potential hacking targets.
The spying row triggered furious protests by the opposition and civil society activists, with ruckus and pandemonium in Parliament, and legal petitions filed calling for a full probe into the claims.
The government resisted calls for an investigation, insisting first there was “no substance” and then citing “national security” to tell the Supreme Court it could not file a detailed affidavit on this matter.
Last month the court said “a vague denial” was insufficient and ordered an inquiry led by a retired judge, with a report due in two months.
Both the NSO Group and Candiru have, in the past, been accused of selling hacking tools to authoritarian regimes. The Israeli government, which faces growing pressure to rein in exports of spyware programmes, last week slashed a list of countries eligible to make such purchases.
A report by news agency Reuters quoted an Israeli newspaper (that did not name sources) as saying Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were now on the list of banned nations.
Last week, in a move that could have implications for the Pegasus scandal in India, Apple, Inc. filed a lawsuit at a US federal court, seeking to block the NSO Group from targeting the estimated 1.65 billion iPhones in use worldwide, of which nearly 3.2 were shipped to India in 2020.
With input from Reuters