Rajya Sabha member John Brittas has moved the Supreme Court for a court-monitored investigation into allegations of snooping on activists, politicians, journalists and constitutional functionaries using the Israeli spyware, Pegasus.
The parliamentarian said the government’s response in the House to the allegations was “evasive”. Mr. Brittas, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP, said allegations pointed to a “critical invasion into privacy”. It actually amounted to a “cyber attack” on citizens. He termed Pegasus as a “weapon” used to “hack” into private smartphones to cause a chilling effect on free speech and expression.
So far, the MP said the only response from the government was a statement from Minister for Electronics and Information Ashwini Vaishnaw in the Rajya Sabha that “time-tested processes in our country are well-established to ensure that unauthorised surveillance does not occur”.
Mr. Brittas asked the court whether the statement meant if the surveillance was authorised by the government. If so, the MP asked, were the procedures under the Indian Telegraph Act, Information Technology (Amendment) Act, Section 92 of Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Telegraph Rules for “lawful interception” followed by the government.
“Hence, the government needs to appraise the reasons for the interceptions made to the gadgets of its own Ministers, staff, constitutional authorities, including Election Commissioners and judges, CBI officers, a Supreme Court staffer, activists, scientists and journalists,” Mr. Brittas argued.
On the other hand, if Pegasus was an unauthorised snooping exercise mounted by a foreign power, it would amount to an act of external aggression. The parliamentarian said the most puzzling factor so far was the government’s lack of a clear answer.
“Despite the very serious nature of allegations, the government has not cared to investigate into the allegations involved in the issue but made only a hopeful hope that the time-tested processes in our country are well-established to ensure that unauthorised surveillance does not occur. This statement is as empty as making a hope that there will not be any crimes in India because the Indian Penal Code is there,” Mr. Brittas, represented by advocate Resmitha R. Chandran, submitted.
The MP told the Supreme Court that Pegasus was a “slap in the face of privacy” declared by the court as a fundamental right inextricably linked to the right to life and dignity.
Hacking allegedly the phones of the judiciary and a Supreme Court staffer who accused a former Chief Justice of India of sexual harassment showed a “strong interference with the administration of justice”. “This is unprecedented and shocking,” the parliamentarian said.
The interception of the phone of a former Election Commission member shows that “fundamentals of democracy and free and fair elections are also shaken”. The allegation that several Opposition members were snooped on weakens democracy. “The Opposition is an inevitable part of democracy,” the petition said.
The allegation that even “top CBI officials” were watched through Pegasus showed that “either the government has no trust upon its own investigating officers or that some external agencies are accessing the highly confidential data of topmost investigating agency. This is a threat to the independence of the central investigating agencies…”
The MP said that whoever used Pegasus did not spare even a well-known Indian virologist was chilling to hear in the midst of the pandemic. That Pegasus was allegedly unleashed on journalists reflected scant regard for free speech in a democracy.
“The Pegasus spyware incident gives way to apprehensions whether the financial interests of the country are also compromised as the target list involves the phone numbers of the businessmen like the one who was associated with Rafale purchase,” Mr. Brittas submitted.