We will hear it next week:” Supreme Court on plea seeking probe into Pegasus scandal

[BREAKING] “We will hear it next week:” Supreme Court on plea seeking probe into Pegasus scandal

The matter was mentioned on Friday before Chief Justice of India NV Ramana who agreed to list the case next week.
[BREAKING] "We will hear it next week:" Supreme Court on plea seeking probe into Pegasus scandal
Pegasus Spyware, Supreme Court
Debayan Roy

The Supreme Court of India has agreed that it will hear next week, the petitionfiled by Director of Hindu Group of publications N Ram and founder of Asianet Sashi Kumar seeking an enquiry by a sitting or retired judge of the Supreme Court into the Pegasus surveillance scandal.

The matter was mentioned by Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal on Friday before Chief Justice of India NV Ramana who agreed to list the case next week.

“The civil liberties of citizens, politicians belonging to opposition parties, journalists, court staff have been put under surveillance. This is a issue which is making waves in India and world over and requires an urgent hearing,” Sibal said.

“We will hear the matter next week,” CJI Ramana said.

Besides Ram and Kumar, Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas and advocate ML Sharmahave also approached the top court seeking inquiry into the scandal.

Pegasus software is a weapons grade spyware/surveillance tool manufactured by an Israeli cyber-arms firm NSO Group Technologies Limited (NSO Group). It is extremely advanced and is capable of infecting a mobile phone/ device without any interaction with the owner. It can conduct intrusive surveillance including inter tracking and recording calls, reading text and WhatsApp messages. It can also be used to plant files on devices.

NSO claims that Pegasus is sold only to “vetted governments” and not to private entities, though the company does not reveal which governments it sells the controversial product to.

Ram and Kumar, in their petition, sought directions to be issued to the Government of India to disclose if the Government of India or any of its agencies have obtained license for Pegasus spyware or used it either directly or indirectly, to conduct surveillance as alleged.

“Mass surveillance using a military-grade spyware abridges several fundamental rights and appears to represent an attempt to infiltrate, attack and destabilise independent institutions that act as critical pillars of our democratic set-up,” the plea said.

The petitioners pointed out that the government has not categorically ruled out obtaining Pegasus licenses to conduct surveillance in their response, and have taken no steps to ensure a credible and independent investigation into these extremely serious allegations.

They submitted that a forensic analysis of several mobile phones belonging to persons targeted for surveillance by the Security Lab of Amnesty International have confirmed Pegasus-induced security breaches.

“Such targeted surveillance using military-grade spyware is an unacceptable violation of the right to privacy which has been held to be a fundamental right under Articles 14, 19 and 21 by the Supreme Court in KS Puttaswamy v. Union of India,” the petition stated.

Right to privacy extends to use and control over one’s mobile phone/electronic device and any interception by means of hacking/tapping is an infraction of Article 21, the plea added.

The plea placed reliance on news reports by The Wire and other international publications to raise the following issues:

– Has targeted surveillance been conducted on journalists doctors, lawyers, opposition politicians, ministers, constitutional functionaries and civil society activists by illegally hacking into their phones using the Pegasus spyware?

– What are the implications of such a hack? Do they represent an attempt by agencies and organisations to muzzle and chill the exercise of free speech and expression of dissent in India?

Brittas, in his plea, submitted that snooping, phone tapping, wiretapping, line bugging etc. are the monitoring of the phone or the internet based conversations by a third party, is a critical invasion into an individual’s privacy.

“This is in clear derogation of Article-21 of the Indian Constitution unambiguously stating that no person shall be deprived of his life for personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law,” his plea said.

The plea placed reliance on the statement by the Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology, Ashwini Vaishnav in the Parliament that there had been no unauthorised interception.

Any authorized snooping, the petition pointed out, can be done in India only by following the procedures of lawful interceptions mandated by the laws under the provisions of Section 5(2) of Indian Telegraph Act 1885, Section 69 of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2000, Section 92 of CrPC and Rule 419(a) of the Indian Telegraph Rules

“If the Government stick on to the statement of the Hon’ble Minister for Electronics and IT-in the Parliament on 28th November 2019 that there had not been “ no unauthorized interception”, the current interception can only be considered as an authorized interception,”Brittas submitted.

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