The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear next week a petition filed by senior journalists N. Ram and Sashi Kumar for an independent probe headed by a former or sitting judge into mass surveillance of over 142 potential “targets”, including journalists, lawyers, ministers, Opposition politicians, constitutional functionaries and civil society activists, using military-grade Israeli spyware Pegasus .
The petition was mentioned by senior advocate Kapil Sibal before a Bench headed by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana.
Mr. Sibal submitted that the petition ought to be heard urgently as it concerns issues affecting the fundamental rights, civil liberties of citizens and even national security. He said the issue was making waves not only in India but also globally.
“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.
It has sought a full disclosure from the government on whether it had authorised the snooping, which seems be an attempt to muzzle free speech and to chill dissent. The government, the petition said, had still not given a straight answer to whether the illegal hack was done with its blessings.
“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 petition highlighted.
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 said.
The Pegasus software, manufactured by Israeli cyber-arms firm NSO Group Technologies Limited, is “extremely advanced and capable of infecting a mobile phone/device without any interaction with the owner (also known as a zero-click attack)”.
“It can conduct extremely intrusive surveillance, including tracking and recording calls, reading text and WhatsApp messages, collecting passwords, reading emails, accessing photos and videos, activating camera and microphone and enabling them to record events, and harvesting information from apps. It can be installed as simply as by placing a call on the targeted device, even if the call is not picked up,” the petition submitted.
The NSO Group claims to sell its products, including Pegasus, only to vetted governments to fight “crime and terror”. A forensic analysis of several mobile phones belonging to people targeted for surveillance by the Security Lab of Amnesty International has confirmed Pegasus-induced security breaches.
Besides Mr. Ram and Mr. Kumar, 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.