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29 phones tested for Pegasus spyware: Supreme Court

Supreme Court of India. File.

Supreme Court of India. File. | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

The Supreme Court on Friday said its technical committee had so far received and tested 29 mobile devices suspected to be infected by Pegasus malware and gave it four weeks to submit a report to Justice R.V. Raveendran, a retired apex court judge overseeing the panel’s inquiry into reports that the government used the Israel-based military-grade spyware to snoop on journalists, parliamentarians, prominent citizens and even court staff.

Opening the interim report submitted by the committee in court, a Special Bench led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana said the committee had developed its own protocol/software to test the devices for malware.

The committee also recorded the statements of petitioners, who had approached the court, journalists and other allegedly affected persons.

It has also contacted experts and agencies, including government ones, who could “potentially throw light on the subject of inquiry”.

The committee has further undertaken a “public consultation exercise” to invite views and comments on the subject of inquiry, the CJI read out the interim report to lawyers, including senior advocate Kapil Sibal, for the petitioners, and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the Centre.

The interim report said the committee had got a “large number of responses”. It was awaiting responses from the agencies. It said the process of analysing the responses was in progress.

The committee said its investigation would be completed by the end of May 2022.

The interim report said the overseeing judge, Justice Raveendran, assisted by two experts, would then require another 15 days to study the recommendations of the technical committee and add views and comments.

The interim report sought an extension of time till June 20, 2022 to complete the entire exercise and file a comprehensive report before the Supreme Court.

“The process is on. We will give them time,” the CJI told the lawyers, who agreed.

When the parties, including the Union, urged the court to make the interim report public, Chief Justice Ramana proceeded to summarise its contents.

The CJI said the interim report had divided its court-appointed task into two areas.

“One is regarding the inquiry itself. That is, the fact-finding report regarding the technical issues relating to the digital forensic aspects about the reported use of Pegasus malware to target mobiles of Indian citizens. Second is regarding recommendations about the enhancement of existing laws and procedures related to surveillance and securing rights including privacy, cyber security, etc,” Chief Justice Ramana explained.

He said the first part of the task was being done by the committee under the supervision of the overseeing judge. The second part was being taken care of by the judge and two other experts assisting him.

Once the technical committee submitted its report to the overseeing judge, he would add his own report on the laws to it.

“So, a comprehensive final report will come to us,” the CJI observed orally.

Passing the order, the Bench, also comprising Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, directed the technical committee to “expedite the examination of the mobile devices which they have received, preferably within a period of four weeks, and submit a report to the overseeing judge. Thereafter, we request the overseeing judge to send the report as early as possible”.

The court posted the case for hearing in July. Chief Justice Ramana is retiring by the end of August.

In October 27 last year, the court had constituted the technical committee while observing in its 46-page order that there was a “broad consensus that unauthorised surveillance/accessing of stored data from the phones and other devices of citizens for reasons other than nation’s security would be illegal, objectionable and a matter of concern”.

The court had, in October, listed several concerns which led it to form the committee and direct an independent inquiry. Several petitions, including one by senior journalists N. Ram and Shashi Kumar, had sought a fair probe into the allegations.

The court had noted that it was compelled to examine the allegations, which if true, would affect the rights to privacy and freedom of speech. The Pegasus allegations pose a “potential chilling effect” on the entire citizenry. There was also the possibility of involvement of foreign agencies. Most of all, it said, the Union had not taken a clear stand in court on how it would address the apprehensions of the public about illegal surveillance.

Justice Raveendran is assisted by Alok Joshi, former IPS officer (1976 batch) and Dr. Sundeep Oberoi, Chairman, Sub-Committee in (International Organisation of Standardisation/International Electro-Technical Commission/Joint Technical Committee).

The three members of the technical committee are Dr. Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, Professor (Cyber Security and Digital Forensics) and Dean, National Forensic Sciences University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat; Dr. Prabaharan P., Professor (School of Engineering), Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Amritapuri, Kerala; and Dr. Ashwin Anil Gumaste, Institute Chair Associate Professor (Computer Science and Engineering), Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, Maharashtra.

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Printable version | May 21, 2022 7:28:26 am |