The allegations that the Pegasus spyware was used by the Indian government to monitor activists, politicians and journalists will be examined by a “committee of experts”, the Centre told the Supreme Court on Monday, Bar and Bench reported.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology filed an affidavit before a three-judge bench of Chief Justice NV Ramana and Justices Vineet Saran and Surya Kant. The bench was hearing a batch of petitions demanding an investigation into the allegations.
In its affidavit, the Centre denied all the allegations. It annexed Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw’s July 19 statement to the Parliament, saying that illegal surveillance was not possible in India.
Vaishnaw is himself on the list of potential targets of the spyware. The Centre claimed that Vaishnaw’s statement has clarified the government’s position.
The Centre said the pleas demanding a probe into the alleged surveillance are based on “conjectures, surmises and unsubstantiated media reports”.
Counsels appearing for various petitioners, however, pointed out that the affidavit does not categorically mention whether the government used the spyware.
“They have to state on oath that they have never used Pegasus spyware,” Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal said. “If they have not, our submissions will be different and if they have, then our submissions will be different.”
Sibal also said that if the government had indeed used the spyware, the petitioners did not want it to set up the expert committee.
Senior Advocates Vikas Singh, Shyam Divan and Rakesh Dwivedi made similar arguments.
The court then told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta that it was prepared to give time to the Centre if it wanted to file a detailed affidavit on the matter.
Mehta, however, denied the court’s offer and said: “We are dealing with a sensitive matter but an attempt is being made to make this sensational.”
“We see you don’t want to take a stand,” Chief Justice of India NV Ramana observed.
Justice Surya Kant, who was also on the bench, said that the question of whether protocol was violated, as the petitions alleged, needed to be answered by the government.
“Suppose you don’t want to file then question of committee will come up,” Kant said.
However, Mehta said that all questions could only be decided by the technical experts. “Whether my no [denial of allegations] is right or wrong let expert committee check,” the solicitor general submitted.
The matter will again be heard on Tuesday.
Former Union minister Yashwant Sinha, journalist N Ram, the Editors Guild of India, Asian College of Journalism Chairperson Sashi Kumar, Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas and advocate ML Sharma have filed pleas in the Supreme Court seeking an investigation into the Pegasus controversy.
Journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Prem Shankar Jha, SNM Abdi, Rupesh Kumar Singh and Ipsa Shataksi, reported to have been on the list of potential Pegasus spyware targets, had also moved the Supreme Court.
During the hearing in the case on August 5, the court had observed that the allegations of surveillance, if correct, were serious in nature.
On August 10, the court granted time to Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to seek instructions from the government on the petitions seeking probe into the allegations.
Pegasus surveillance allegations
The alleged misuse of the spyware came to light earlier this month when Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International accessed a database featuring more than 50,000 phone numbers “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens”.
The list of potential targets in India includes 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 then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment.
The spyware is licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group. The company insists that it licences its software only to “vetted governments” with good human-rights records and that Pegasus is intended to target criminals.
On August 9, the defence ministry told Rajya Sabha that it has “not had any transaction with NSO Group Technologies”. This was the government’s first direct reply to repeated questions from the Opposition on whether the administration used the Pegasus spyware.