The Supreme Court on Wednesday appointed a three-member technical committee to investigate allegations that the Pegasus software was used to snoop on Indian citizens, including journalists and political leaders.
Pegasus is a military-grade spyware made by Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO Group Technologies, which is only sold to “vetted governments”.
Multiple petitions were filed in the Supreme Court seeking an investigation into the matter. The revelations have raised questions about whether the Indian government was illegally snooping on its critics.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Chief Justice NV Ramana said former Supreme Court judge RV Raveendran will oversee the functioning of the committee, along with former Research and Analysis Wing chief Alok Joshi and cybersecurity expert Sundeep Oberoi.
The committee comprises professors of cybersecurity and computers science Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, Prabaharan P and Anil Gumaste, Ramana said in the order.
The court asked the committee to investigate the allegations expeditiously and listed the matter for hearing after eight weeks.
Ramana noted that submissions made by the petitioners deserved merit as there was “no specific denial” on the allegations from the Centre.
On September 13, the Supreme Court had reserved its order on the petitions after the Centre refused to file an affidavit in the case.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had said that filing an affidavit on whether the spyware was used will “not serve national interest”. He had also argued that the allegations of spying “cannot be a subject matter of an affidavit or debate in court or public discourse”.
In his order on Wednesday, the chief justice also said that restriction on privacy can only be imposed in matters of national security. However, he added in the order: “...This does not mean that the state gets a free pass every time the spectre of ‘national security’ is raised.”
The Supreme Court added:
“The mere invocation of national security by the State does not render the Court a mute spectator. National security cannot be the bugbear that the judiciary shies away from, by virtue of its mere mentioning.”
Ramana noted that in a democratic country, “indiscriminate spying on individuals” cannot be allowed without following the procedures established by law.
“It is undeniable that under surveillance it affects the right and freedom of people and how it is exercised,” he said. “It also about freedom of press and the important role played by them, such technology may have chilling effect on right to press.”
The Supreme Court added that privacy is not just the concern of journalists or social activists. “Every citizen of India ought to be protected against violations of privacy,” it said. “It is this expectation which enables us to exercise our choices, liberties, and freedom.”
The court said that it gave ample opportunities to the Centre to offer clarification on the accusations of spying.
“However, despite the repeated assurances and opportunities given, ultimately the Respondent Union of India has placed on record what they call a ‘limited affidavit’, which does not shed any light on their stand or provide any clarity as to the facts of the matter at hand,” the order said.
Reactions to SC order
Politicians, lawyers and journalists welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision to order an inquiry into the Pegasus spyware accusations.
“Welcome SC order setting up special committee to examine misuse of spyware Pegasus despite Modi government’s embarrassing attempts to evade, avoid and divert attention in the name of national security,” Congress General Secretary Randeep Surjewala said in a tweet.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan said: “Kudos to the SC for a fine judgement appointing an independent fact finding committee in the Pegasus snoopgate case, headed by retired SC Raveendran J. The SC rejected the government’s plea of non interference on ground of national security as well as its attempt to appoint its own expert body.”
Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of The Wire, one of the media organisations that participated in the Pegasus investigation, described the order as a “huge vindication”.
“At The Wire we are gratified the SC will probe the Pegasus snooping matter,” he said. “Our reporters spent months investigating the use of spyware as part of Pegasus Project.”
The surveillance allegations
The list of people who allegedly have been spied on in India include Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa, Union ministers Ashwini Vaishnaw and Prahlad Singh Patel, industrialist Anil Ambani, former Central Bureau of Investigation Director Alok Verma and many others.
Responding to the allegations, Vaishnaw, the Union information technology minister, had told Parliament on July 19 that illegal surveillance was not possible in India.
In August, the Ministry of Defence had told the Rajya Sabha that it has “not had any transaction with NSO Group Technologies”.