The Centre on Tuesday told the Supreme Court that it cannot divulge if the Modi government used the Pegasus spyware due to “national security purposes”, Bar and Bench reported.

A three-judge bench led by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana was hearing a batch of petitions seeking an investigation into allegations that the spyware was used to monitor journalists, political leaders, human rights activists in the country.

“These software are purchased by every country and the petitioners want it to be divulged if the software has not been used,” Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the court. “If we divulge this then the terrorists can take preventive steps.”

During Monday’s hearing, the Centre, in an affidavit, dismissed allegations of surveillance using Pegasus spyware as mere “conjectures and surmises” based on “unsubstantiated media reports”. The government, however, said the allegations will be examined by a “committee of experts”.

Counsels appearing for various petitioners pointed out that the affidavit does not categorically mention whether the government used the spyware. The court had then said that it was prepared to give time to the Centre if it wanted to file a detailed affidavit on the matter. Mehta refused the offer and insisted that the expert committee would dispel the “wrong narrative” spread by “vested interests”.

On Tuesday too, Mehta maintained his stance and submitted that matters of national security could not be a subject of public debate.

“We can divulge to committee of experts and the expert body will be a neutral body,” Mehta said. “Would you as a constitutional court expect such issues to be divulged before the court and put it up for public debate?”

To this, Justice Surya Kant said that the court would not disclose anything that compromises the security of the country.

“Here the issue is different...there are people alleging hacking of their phones,” Kant said, according to Live Law. “In case of civilians also rules permit [to do surveillance], but only on permission by competent authority. What is the problem if that competent authority files an affidavit before us?”

Mehta requested the judges to allow the formation of the expert committee, whose report could be placed before the court.

“We will see that...This is all stage of admission,” Ramana replied. “We had thought a comprehensive reply will come but it was a limited reply. We will see, we will also think and consider what can be done.”

The court issued a notice to the Centre seeking its response on the matter. The case will next be heard after 10 days.

Petitions in the Supreme Court

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.

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 and only direct reply to repeated questions from the Opposition on whether the administration used the Pegasus spyware.