The Supreme Court on Friday stayed the inquiry proceedings of a committee formed by the West Bengal government to investigate allegations that the Pegasus spyware was used by central government agencies to spy on politicians, journalists and activists in the country, reported Live Law.
A bench led by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana said it was unhappy about the commission going ahead with the proceedings even as the Supreme Court itself had formed an independent committee to look into the matter in October.
The Pegasus spyware has been at the centre of a debate on privacy violations. In July, a global investigation involving 17 news organisations had revealed that the software was allegedly used to spy on heads of states, activists and journalists in several countries.
The West Bengal government had formed the panel in July to investigate the allegations. In August, the Supreme Court had asked the government to “show restraint” in relation to conducting the inquiry but had not stayed the proceedings.
The bench had agreed to the statement of the state government’s counsel Abhishek Manu Singhvi that he would convey the court’s message to the state administration.
During Friday’s hearing, Ramana asked Singhvi about the oral undertaking that the state government would not continue the investigation.
“Mr Singhvi, what is this?” the chief justice asked. “We wanted to record [the undertaking], you said don’t record. Again you started the inquiry?”
Singhi said that he had conveyed the court’s message but the state government does not control the independent commission that had started its investigation.
“Please call their counsel and pass orders,” Singhvi told the court. “As a state, I can’t restrain the commission.”
The bench said that it understood the “state’s predicament” and issued notice to the commission and stayed the proceedings in the matter.
The members of the commission are retired Supreme Court judge Madan Lokur and former Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya.
The spyware is licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group. The company insists that it licences the software only to “vetted governments” with good human-rights records 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.
Pegasus’ potential targets included opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa, The Wire founders Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu and even the former Supreme Court staffer who had accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment.
Trinamool Congress MP and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee’s number was found in the database. Traces of Pegasus was also found in elections strategist Prashant Kishore’s phone, according to digital forensics conducted by Amnesty International’s Security Lab.