The findings of an expert committee to look into allegations of illegal surveillance of citizens by the Union government using the Pegasus spyware will be kept in sealed covers, the Supreme Court said in an order on Thursday, Live Law reported.
This means that the contents of the documents will not be shared with the opposite party. The practice is carried out on the grounds that the contents are highly sensitive in nature or can affect national security or public order.
The development came hours after a three-judge bench led by Chief Justice NV Ramana said that it will make the report public and upload it on the Supreme Court website.
“The sealed covers were opened in the court and we read out some portions of the said reports,” the Supreme Court said in its order. “Thereafter, the reports were re-sealed and kept in the safe custody of the secretary general of this court, who shall make it available as and when required by the court.”
During the hearing, the Supreme Court said that the expert committee has reported that out of 29 phones examined, five were found infected with some malware. However, it was not clear whether the malware was Pegasus.
The court also took note of a finding by the panel that the Centre did not co-operate with the inquiry.
During the hearing, the chief justice said that some persons who had submitted their phones for examination have requested that the committee’s report should not be released in public.
However, Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal, representing one of the petitioners, sought a redacted version of the report and said that the petitioners had a right to know what malware was found during the inquiry.
Lawyer Vrinda Grover, appearing for another petitioner in the case, also said her client needed to know what the malware was.
The Supreme Court said that the inquiry panel’s report is in three parts, including two reports by the technical committee and one report by the overseeing judge.
The case will be heard again after four weeks.
The surveillance allegations pertain to a leaked list, featuring more than 50,000 phone numbers, which was accessed in July 2021 by Paris-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International. As part of the Pegasus Project, the organisations had shared the list with 17 news outlets.
On May 20, the Supreme Court had granted more time to the committee to submit its final report, and asked it to complete the examination of 29 mobile phones allegedly targeted by the Pegasus spyware preferably within four weeks.
The Pegasus spyware is licensed to governments around the world by 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.
According to The Wire, the list of potential people who were targeted using the spyware includes 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 last year that illegal surveillance was not possible in India.
Petitions in the Supreme Court seeking an investigation into the matter have been filed by 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