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Shashi Tharoor: No JPC needed in Pegasus, IT panel will do its duty

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Exclusion from an investigation by the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) into alleged surveillance using the Pegasus spywareCongress leader Shashi Tharoor, who heads the parliamentary standing committee on information technology, said on Wednesday that the committee “will do its duty” and that the topic is “already on my committee’s mandate”.

The House Committee convened representatives from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Telecommunications on July 28 to discuss citizens’ data security and privacy.

Speak with The Indian ExpressTharoor said there was no need to create a JPC to investigate the disclosures as the standing committee and the JPC have identical rules.

He said the government has said they have not conducted any unauthorized surveillance. He said one must take the word of the government, “but if they imply that there was authorized surveillance then they will have to explain on what basis it was authorized”.

“It is an active issue and until the committee has come forward I will not be able to speak in my capacity as chairman. As an individual Member of Parliament I can say that this is an issue of the utmost seriousness and seriousness for Indian democracy. Because the implied allegation is that a government agency has used software intended to track down criminals and terrorists and used it for the partisan political advantage of the ruling party. That is the implied claim. Because if you look at the list of people who have been wiretapped, the numbers are either opposition politicians or journalists or people with some other kind of similar interest in the ruling party, like the (Ranjan) Gogoi harassment case family… the lady and her family, secretaries of leaders and so on,” he said.

Tharoor said the laws are very clear about surveillance. “Interception of communications is only allowed for reasons of national security or the prevention of a crime. There are rules and procedures for that. If you read the IT law of 2000, sections 43 and 66 read together… hacking… what is to introduce malware or spyware into a computer device, computer network etc. is actually against the law, which is punishable by three years in prison or 5 lakhs or both.”

“So considering that hacking is not legal under the IT law… so basically the government says no unauthorized events happened meaning they authorized it, but in that case whoever authorized it runs into the blatant illegality of the authorization. Otherwise, if our government didn’t do it, another government should have done it because the NSO claims that the software is only sold to governments… And that governments are controlled by them and then approved by the Israeli government. So in these circumstances it is serious anyway. Either someone in the Indian government has broken Indian laws and attacked our democracy, or a foreign government is invading Indian politics and Indian public life by spying on our people,” he said.

Either way, Tharoor said, a serious investigation is warranted. “So in a personal capacity, and not as chairman, I have called for a judicial inquiry because I think you need an independent voice in this matter. I mean, the commission will do its duty. I think that if you actually did this through a judicial investigation, you would definitely get a judge with the power to call witnesses and documents, to forensically analyze phones to see if there are any traces of hacking, maybe even to weigh the evidence in a judicial manner and come to the conclusions.”

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When asked whether a JPC was warranted, he said: “It is already on my committee’s mandate. Strictly speaking, you don’t need to create a new committee to do something that already falls within the mandate of one committee. Yes, they did that on the Personal Data Protection Act… I don’t see what advantage a JPC has if there is already a parliamentary committee. It will have exactly the same rules. The rules of the JPC and the rules of the parliamentary committee are identical. So we do all the work.”

When asked if he believed the government would be willing to launch a judicial inquiry, he replied: “That’s the question. Frankly, I think some people go straight to the Supreme Court to request an inquest. And if the Supreme Court does not take cognizance of it, there is also a law on the commissions of inquiry on the basis of which a judicial investigation can be initiated.”

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