Yesterday (30 July), a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of India N V Ramana agreed to hear a petition for an independent investigation into mass surveillance using the military-grade Israeli spyware Pegasus, headed by a former or a sitting judge.
The Supreme Court website shows the petition is likely to be taken up on 6 August. The petition was filed by senior journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar and mentioned by senior advocate Kapil Sibal before the apex court, reports The Hindu.
It demanded investigation into snooping of more than 142 potential targets including journalists, lawyers, Ministers, Opposition politicians, constitutional functionaries and civil society activists.
The Pegasus is a highly-advanced spyware that can gain access to someone’s cellphone after user clicks a link sent by it, or even with a missed call (also known as a zero-click attack). After installing itself stealthily, Pegasus begins to contact control servers which allow it to send commands to gather data from the infected device.
Pegasus, therefore, can allegedly steal passwords, contacts, text messages, calendar info, as well as voice and video calls made through WhatsApp and even track live location.
The Israeli cyberarms firm NSO Group which developed Pegasus says on its website, “NSO products are used exclusively by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight crime and terror.”
The petition submitted to the court that a forensic analysis of several mobile phones belonging to people targeted for surveillance by the Security Lab of Amnesty International had confirmed Pegasus-induced security breaches.
Sibal asked the court to hear the petition urgently as it concerned issues affecting the fundamental rights and civil liberties of citizens and even national security.
“Such 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 petition said, adding that the government had still not given a straight answer to whether the hacking was done with its blessings.
It called the snooping an attempt to muzzle free speech and chill dissent, and sought a full disclosure from the government of whether it had authorised the snooping.
The petition noted:
“Respondents [Ministries of Home, Information Technology and Communications] have not categorically ruled out obtaining Pegasus licences to conduct surveillance in their response, and have taken no steps to ensure a credible and independent investigation into these extremely serious allegations.”
"The spying had caused serious dents on the rights to free speech and privacy. It had no legal basis. In fact, the legal regime for surveillance under Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act had been completely bypassed. Civilians had become targets."
“Surveillance/interception is justified only in cases of public emergency or in the interests of public safety, and the existence of such conditions must be inferred reasonably and cannot be determined solely on the assessment of the government… The hack/interception/decryption occasioned by the Pegasus spyware constitutes a criminal offence,” the petition highlighted.
Apart from this, Rajya Sabha member John Brittas and Supreme Court advocate M L Sharma have also filed separate petitions seeking an independent investigation into the Pegasus allegations.
Source : https://swarajyamag.com/news-brief/supreme-court-to-hear-petition-on-pegasus-demanding-independent-investigation-headed-by-a-judge619