Two journalists have moved the Supreme Court seeking a direction for an independent inquiry into allegations that the Pegasus spyware was used by central government agencies to spy on politicians, journalists and activists in the country, reported Live Law on Tuesday. They have sought the inquiry to be led by a retired or a sitting Supreme Court judge.

Former editor of The Hindu N Ram and chairperson of the Asian College of Journalism Sashi Kumar have also sought a direction to the Centre to disclose if the Union government or any of its agencies got a licence for Pegasus spyware and used it either directly or indirectly for surveillance.

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 Central Bureau of Investigation Director Alok Verma are also among the potential targets.

The petitioners noted in their plea that Amnesty International’s Security Lab conducted forensic analyses of several mobile phones of the potential targets. The non-governmental organisation confirmed that the mobile phones had security breaches from Pegasus, the petition said.

“Such mass surveillance using a military-grade spyware abridges several fundamental rights and appears to represent an attempt to infiltrate, attack and destabilise independent institutions that act as critical pillars of our democratic set-up. It is also concerning to note that the Respondents [the Union government] have not categorically ruled out obtaining Pegasus licenses to conduct surveillance in their response, and have taken no steps to ensure a credible and independent investigation into these extremely serious allegations.”

— The petition moved by journalists N Ram and Shashi Kumar

The petition said that if the allegations of surveillance were true, it was a violation of the right to privacy, reported The Wire. “The Pegasus hack is a direct attack on communicational, intellectual and informational privacy, and critically endangers the meaningful exercise of privacy in these contexts.”

It said that the potential targeted hacking of journalists, ministers, Opposition leaders, lawyers and others compromises the fundamental right to free speech and expression. “The specific targeting of scores of journalists is an attack on the freedom of the press, and seriously abridges the right to know, which is an essential component of the right to free speech and expression,” the petition said.

The journalists also said that legal surveillance laws under Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act have been bypassed.

“Surveillance/interception is justified only in cases of public emergency or in the interests of public safety, and the existence of such conditions must be inferred reasonably and cannot be determined solely on the assessment of the government,” they said. “Neither of these mandatory conditions have been met in the present case, rendering the surveillance wholly illegal.”

Further, the petition said that the alleged hacking of phones constitutes a criminal offence punishable under Section 66 (computer-related offences), 66B (punishment for dishonestly receiving stolen computer resource or communication device), 66E (punishment for violation of privacy) and 66F (punishment for cyberterrorism) of the Information Technology Act.

“The attack prima facie constitutes an act of cyber-terrorism that has several grave political and security ramifications, especially considering that the devices of government ministers, senior political figures and constitutional functionaries which may contain sensitive information have been targeted,” it added.

This is the third petition filed before the Supreme Court on the Pegasus controversy. Last week, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas and an advocate, ML Sharma, moved the Supreme Court separately seeking a court-monitored inquiry into the alleged surveillance.

The West Bengal and the Chhattisgarh governments have formed committees to investigate the matter.

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