Communist Party of India (Marxist) Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas has moved the Supreme Court, seeking a court-monitored inquiry by a special investigation team into the alleged surveillance by government agencies using the Pegasus spyware, PTI reported on Sunday.
The Pegasus spyware is licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group. The company says that it licenses its software only to “vetted governments” and that Pegasus is intended to target criminals.
But a leaked list, featuring more than 50,000 phone numbers “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens”, was accessed by Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International. It became the basis of a global investigation called the Pegasus Project in which 17 media organisations collaborated. The Wire from India is among the participants in the project.
The India list features over 40 journalists, two Union ministers, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa and a former Supreme Court staffer who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment. Industrialist Anil Ambani and former CBI Director Alok Verma are also among the potential targets.
Brittas said that despite the serious nature of the allegations, the Centre has not cared to investigate them but has “made only a hopeful hope that the time tested processes in our country are well-established to ensure that unauthorised surveillance does not occur”.
He added: “Therefore, the queries were raised in the Indian Parliament with respect to this leakage. But the government has neither denied nor admitted the snooping by the spyware.”
Highlighting Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnav’s statement in the Parliament, Brittas’ petition states that the minister has said that “no unauthorised interception” has taken place, reported Live Law. This gives rise to the question if the interception was authorised, the petition adds.
“It is only an evasive statement from the government,” it says. “The government has unequivocally accepted the statement of the company, NSO, which owns the alleged spyware technology and blindly accepted their version without any investigation.”
The petition says that he was approaching the Supreme Court as the matter involves citizens’ fundamental right to privacy and abuse of the state’s surveillance powers.
“If the Pegasus Spyware was used in an unauthorized manner that is in violation of fundamental rights under Articles 19(1)(a) and 21 and also as a slap on the face of the right to privacy upheld by this Hon’ble Court in Puttaswamy case. There is also violation of the provisions of IT Act & Indian Telegraph Act for which strict penal action needs to be done after an immediate, independent and transparent”— Petition filed by Communist Party of India (Marxist) Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas
The petition mentions the staffer who made sexual harassment allegations against Gogoi as well another Supreme Court judge are a potential target of surveillance.
“As the interceptions are said to be done in the gadgets of judges and Supreme Court staffer, there is a strong interference with the administration of justice,” it states. “This is unprecedented and shocking the conscience of the judicial system.”
Brittas also mentions Lavasa, arguing that the inclusion of the Election Commission of India member shows that the fundamental aspects of Indian democracy are at stake.
“The Pegasus Spyware allegations gives two inferences – it was done by the Indian Government or by a foreign agency,” the petition says. “If it is done by the Indian Government it is done in an unauthorized manner. The spending of sovereign amount for personal and political interests of the ruling party cannot be permitted. If it is done by some foreign agency, it is an act of external aggression which also needs to be dealt in a serious manner”.
Earlier this week, advocate ML Sharma had also filed a petition before the Supreme Court seeking a court-monitored investigation into the alleged surveillance. “Pegasus is not just a surveillance tool,” read Sharma’s petition. “It is a cyber-weapon being unleashed on the Indian polity.”