Allegations of snooping using the Pegasus software are about fundamental rights and “could have a chilling effect”, the Supreme Court said today, setting up an inquiry panel headed by a retired judge
Retired Supreme Court Justice RV Ravindran will head the committee and an IPS officer will assist him, along with officials from the National Forensic University.
The committee’s report has to be handed in to the court by the next hearing, two months later.
“We issued notice to the government. We gave ample opportunity to the government to give details of all action taken by it. But despite repeated chances they gave limited affidavit that does not give clarity. If they had clarified they would have reduced the burden on us. But that does not mean state gets a free pass every time national security is raised,” the Supreme Court said.
“The court will not encroach upon national security but that does not make the court a mute spectator. The nature of the allegations is about fundamental rights being violated. This could have chilling effect. There are also allegations of foreign agencies being involved.”
The court said a “vague denial from the government” is not sufficient.
“Hence allegations need to be probed,” said the court, saying that an expert committee supervised by a retired Supreme Court judge would inquire into the snooping allegations.
Multiple petitions have called for an investigation into allegations that Israeli Pegasus spyware sold only to governments – was used to target opposition leaders, journalists and others.
Petitioners, including former union minister Yashwant Sinha, CPM MP John Brittas, Supreme Court advocate ML Sharma, the Editors’ Guild of India and individual journalists, had asked the court to order the government to produce details of the alleged unauthorised surveillance using Pegasus.
The Supreme Court said the petitions raised a concern about how technology could be used and abused.
“Without allowing ourselves to be consumed into political rhetoric, we have never refrained from protecting people from their fundamental rights being abused,” said the judges.
The right to privacy, they said, needs to be discussed. Agencies used surveillance to fight terror and there could be a need to intrude upon privacy, but the court had a rider.
“Privacy is not just for journalists and politicians but also about the rights of individuals. There are certain limitations on the right to privacy but all decisions should be under the constitutional process.”
The petitions also raised important concerns for the freedom of press, which is important pillar of democracy, and the protection of sources of journalists, the court said.
The judges said it was an “uphill task” to form the committee.
Disclaimer: The NSO group, which owns Pegasus, admits this is spyware and is used to hack phones, but says it does business only with governments and government agencies. The Israeli company says it does not corroborate the list of potential targets reported by media companies around the world. The Indian government has said there is “no substance” to the reports of Pegasus being used by it against opposition leaders, journalists and others. NDTV cannot independently verify the authenticity of the list of those who were supposedly targeted.