The Supreme Court on Thursday said it will set up a technical committee to look into allegations that the Pegasus software was used for spying on journalists, politicians, businesspersons and several others, Live Law reported.
Chief Justice NV Ramana said that he will pass the order on constituting the technical committee next week. Ramana made the comment verbally to senior advocate Chander Uday Singh during the hearing of another case.
Singh is the counsel of one of the petitioners seeking an investigation into the Pegasus row.
The surveillance allegations pertain to a leaked list, featuring more than 50,000 phone numbers, that was accessed by Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International. As part of the Pegasus Project, the organisations had shared the list with 17 news outlets.
According to the Wire, which focused on the Indian portion of the list, “the numbers of those in the database include over 40 journalists, three major opposition figures, one constitutional authority, two serving ministers in the Narendra Modi government, current and former heads and officials of security organisations and scores of businesspersons”.
On Thursday, Ramana said that he wanted to pass the order on setting up the technical committee this week. However, some of the experts whom the court wanted to appoint in the committee expressed personal difficulties in joining the panel.
The chief justice said that the court will soon finalise on the members of the panel.
On September 13, the court had reserved its order on petitions seeking an investigation into the allegations after the Centre refused to file an affidavit.
This was after Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, told the court that the central government’s stand on whether Pegasus was used for spying “cannot be a subject matter of an affidavit or debate in court or public discourse”.
Mehta had said that filing an affidavit on whether the spyware was used will “not serve national interest”. The solicitor general had suggested that a “committee of independent domain experts” could instead look into the allegations.
On August 17, the Centre had also cited national security in the Supreme Court as the reason for being unable to divulge if the Pegasus spyware was used.
Pegasus surveillance allegations
The spyware is licensed to governments around the world by Israeli cyber intelligence companyNSO 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.
According to the Wire, the list of potential people who were targeted using the spyware include Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa, Union ministers Ashwini Vaishnaw and Prahlad Singh Patel, industrialist Anil Ambani and former Central Bureau of Investigation Director Alok Verma.
Responding to the allegations, Vaishnaw, the Union information technology minister, had told Parliament on July 19 that illegal surveillance was not possible in India.
Later in August, the Ministry of Defence had told the Rajya Sabha that it has “not had any transaction with NSO Group Technologies”.
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, who are reported to have been on the list of potential Pegasus spyware targets, have also moved the Supreme Court on the matter.
During a hearing in the case on August 5, the court had observed that the allegations of surveillance, if correct, were serious in nature.