Pegasus: SC Rejects Govt’s Plea; Appoints Independent Expert Committee To Probe Snooping Allegations
Moneylife Digital Team 27 October 2021
While rejecting the Union government’s offer to appoint its own panel to probe allegations in the Pegasus-related snooping, the Supreme Court (SC) has decided to appoint an independent expert committee under the supervision of the court for the purpose. The committee will be headed by justice RV Raveendran, former judge of the apex court. 
 
In its order, the bench headed by chief justice NV Ramana says that allowing the Union government-appointed panel to be set up would violate principles of justice dispensation. “We decline the respondent-Union of India’s plea to allow them to appoint an expert committee for the purposes of investigating the allegations, as such a course of action would violate the settled judicial principle against bias,” the bench says in its order.
 
The bench noted that solicitor general Tushar Mehta had submitted that many petitions were self-service, but it cannot accept such omnibus contention. The Union government had argued that disclosing the details on the use of Pegasus spyware involves national security issues, as it refused to divulge any details.
 
“State cannot get a free pass every time by raising national security concerns,” says the bench, also comprising justice Surya Kant and justice Hima Kohli, adding, “No omnibus prohibition can be called against judicial review. The Union government should have justified its stand here and not render the court a mute spectator.”
 
The apex court, in its judgement, says mere raising national security by the State would not stop it from taking up the issue. Emphasising that national security cannot be a bugbear, the SC refused to accept the omnibus denial by the Union government.

The bench noted that the Union government filed a limited affidavit, which did not make anything clear, despite it repeatedly saying that the Court is not concerned with issues of national security.
 
Chief justice Ramana also mentioned, “We live in the era of information…we must recognise that while technology is important ..it is important to safeguard the right to privacy. Not only for journalists, but privacy is important for all citizens.” 
 
“Initially, this court was not satisfied with the writ petitions based on newspaper reports. This court usually discourages public interest litigations (PILs) which are based on newspaper reports. However, various other petitions have been filed by those who have been direct victims,” the bench observed.
 
In the absence of the Indian government's clear stand on snooping allegations, the bench said repeated suggestions made it to file a detailed affidavit in response to the allegations produced no effect on the government, which ended up filing a two-page affidavit.
 
It says, “This court gave ample time to the Union government to disclose all information regarding the Pegasus attack since 2019. However, only a limited affidavit was filed, throwing no light. If the Union government had made its stand clear, the burden on us would have been less.”
 
According to the SC, there has been no specific denial by the Indian government. Thus, it says the apex court has no option but to accept the submissions of the petitioner prima facie and appoint an expert committee whose function will be overseen by the Supreme Court.
 
The apex court pointed out that documents filed by petitioners, which record certain material, cannot be brushed aside, such as the reports of reputed organisations like Citizen Lab and affidavits of experts. Mr Mehta, the SG, had suggested that many of these reports are motivated and self-serving. However, the SC says such an omnibus oral allegation is not sufficient to desist from interference.
 
Supreme Court has chosen renowned experts to be a part of the three-member committee, which will comprise justice Raveendran, Alok Joshi, a former officer from the Indian police service (IPS) and Dr Sandeep Oberoi.
 
The three-member technical committee appointed by the SC comprises Dr Naveen Kumar Chaudhary (Professor of Cyber Security and Digital Forensics and dean, National Forensic Sciences University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat), Dr Prabaharan P (Professor at School of Engineering in Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Amritapuri, Kerala) and Dr Ashwin Anil Gumaste (Institute Chair Associate Professor at Computer Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, Maharashtra).
 
The apex court was hearing a bunch of petitions filed on surveillance and hacking of phones of several journalists by the government, using the Pegasus software, created and developed by the Israeli company NSO. 
 
In its PIL (public interest litigation), the Editors Guild of India (EGI) had requested the SC to issue guidelines for safeguarding journalists from surveillance and to declare as unconstitutional the provisions of the Indian Telegraph Rules, 1951, as well as those of the IT Act, 2000 that allows such surveillance.
 
In collaboration with The Wire, Amnesty International was able to forensically examine the phones of 10 Indians, all of which showed signs of either an attempted hack or a successful compromise.
 
Pegasus is malware that infects iPhones and Android devices. It allows its users to pull out messages, photos and emails, record calls and activate microphones. The Washington Post reports that 189 journalists, more than 600 politicians and government officials and more than 60 business executives were targeted by clients of the NSO Group, a hacker-for-hire headquartered in Israel.
 
“This is nasty software ‘like eloquently nasty,” Timothy Summers, a former cybersecurity engineer at a US intelligence agency and now director of IT at Arizona State University, told The Washington Post. “With it “, one could spy on almost the entire world’s population... There’s not anything wrong with building technologies that allow you to collect data; it’s necessary sometimes. But humanity is not in a place where we can have that much power just accessible to anybody,” Mr Summers told The Washington Post.
Comments
Kamal Garg
4 weeks ago
Hats off to the SC to take this courageous decision to probe into Pegasus issue since the government was not forthcoming clearly whether the citizens' privacy was invaded and compromised or not. Let truth prevail.
silloomarker
4 weeks ago
The Supreme Court has done well to throw out the flimsy excuses of the government to protect its own interests. It is a question of people's right to privacy, as important as "national security" which the government uses freely to refuse information or throw ordinary citizens behind bars through outdated draconian laws.
gurjartanay
4 weeks ago
How can the SC doubt modi and Shah.....this is deshdroh
Kamal Garg
Replied to gurjartanay comment 4 weeks ago
Ha ha ha......
Nice one.
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