The Supreme Court has listed for hearing on Wednesday a clutch of petitions based on which it set up a technical committee monitored by former apex court judge R.V. Raveendran in October last to examine allegations of the government using the Israeli military grade software to spy on citizens.
The 12 cases, including one by former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu N. Ram and senior journalist Sashi Kumar, are listed before a three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana. .
The causelist shows the lead case, filed by advocate Manohar Lal Sharma, will be taken up “along with the interim report submitted by the technical committee”.
Mr. Sharma's recent application for investigation into an allegation in a The New York Times report that India bought the Pegasus spyware from Israel may come up before the Bench, also comprising Justices A.S. Bopanna and Hima Kohli.
A Bench led by the CJI, in a 46-page order on October 27, constituted the technical committee when the government did not file a "detailed affidavit" in court in response to the petitions, citing national security reasons among others. The court, in October, asked the committee to give a report expeditiously and listed the case in eight weeks.
However, in early January, the committee issued a public notice inviting citizens who believe they were victims of Pegasus snooping to give detailed reasons to substantiate their suspicions. News reports had said a cross-section of people, from journalists, activists, parliamentarians, government officials, lawyers and even court staffers, were targetted using Pegasus. In case the suspicions ring true and deserve further examination, the committee had said, mobile phones and instruments would be collected by the committee in Delhi and digital phone images of the records collected would be provided to their owners.
The job cut out for the committee was to “enquire, investigate and determine” whether the “Pegasus suite of spyware was used on phones or other devices of the citizens of India to access stored data, eavesdrop on conversations, intercept information and/or for any other purposes”. The other questions of the committee included whether Pegasus was used by the Centre or State or any of their agencies against their own citizens, and if used, was it authorised and under what law or procedure.
The Supreme Court had wanted the committee to dive deep into the first public signs of the alleged use of the spyware years ago. It had wanted the committee to dig up the steps taken by the government “after reports were published in the year 2019 about hacking of WhatsApp accounts of Indian citizens, using the Pegasus suite of spyware”. It also wanted the committee to use its expertise to test the existing surveillance laws and procedures to see how much they value and protect citizens’ privacy.
The court had asked the committee to also suggest means to prevent State and non-State players from invading the fundamental right of privacy of citizens through illegal surveillance mounted on them. It had urged the Justice Raveendran panel to come up with suggestions for enhancing and improving the cyber security of the nation and its assets.