In reply to a question by former minister Dayanidhi Maran, the MHA cited a law that allows agencies to monitor and decrypt any information stored in any computer on grounds of internal security

NEW DELHI: The government on Tuesday refused to tell Parliament if it has used Israeli spyware Pegasus to snoop on Indian citizens via WhatsApp.

In reply to a question by former telecom minister Dayanidhi Maran, the Ministry of Home Affairs cited a law that allows agencies to monitor and decrypt any information stored in any computer on grounds of internal security and has often been criticised by the right to privacy advocates.

The CBI, the ED and the Intelligence Bureau are among 10 central agencies upon which the power of telephone interception is vested and they have to take the Union Home Secretary's approval before putting anyone on surveillance, the Lok Sabha was also informed on Tuesday.

Responding to a questionnaire on the WhatsApp spy gate that had caused uproar last month, Minister of State for Home Affairs G Kishan Reddy said the government had the power to snoop on individuals under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act 2000.

"This power of interception is to be executed as per the provisions of law, rules and SoPs. Easy such case is approved by the Union Home Secretary in case of the central government and by the Home Secretary of the state concerned in case of the state government," he said in a written reply to a question.

The competent authority in the central government has authorised 10 agencies for the purpose: Intelligence Bureau, Central Bureau of Investigation, Enforcement Directorate, Narcotics Control Bureau, Central Board of Direct Taxes, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, National Investigation Agency, R&AW, Directorate of Signal Intelligence and Delhi Police Commissioner.

The government's reply came in response to questions related to the tapping of WhatsApp calls and messages.

Reddy said the law empowers the Centre as well as state governments to authorise their agencies to intercept, monitor or decrypt “any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource”. 

The minister also cited Section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, which authorises specific individuals to view messages in the case of a public emergency or in the interest of public safety. 

He said each interception is to be authorised by the Union Home Secretary in case of the Centre and, if the matter relates to a state, by the respective state’s home secretary. 

Notably, the minister chose not to spell out whether the government had purchased Pegasus that was used to hack into the WhatsApp accounts of human rights activists and journalists, or if there was any specific protocol followed to get permissions for tapping messages and calls. 

Last month, the Facebook-owned messaging platform had admitted 121 Indians were targeted by the spyware and that it had informed the government about it in May and September. 

However, it was unclear as to who gave the direction to spy on these Indians.