The Supreme Court on Wednesday appointed an independent expert technical committee overseen by a former apex court judge, Justice R.V. Raveendran, to examine allegations that the government used an Israeli spyware, Pegasus , to snoop on its own citizens.
Noting that the snooping allegations are “grave” and truth should be out, a Bench led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana asked the committee to submit its report “expeditiously”. It posted the next hearing after eight weeks.
Justice Raveendran would oversee the functioning of the technical committee and would be 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 would be 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.
The court said it did not want to wander into any “political thicket” but India cannot remain mute in the face of the allegations when other countries across the globe have taken them seriously and kick-started efforts to know the truth.
The order, read out in court by Chief Justice Ramana, cited several reasons which compelled the court to form a committee. These include reports that the snooping exercise had widely impacted the rights to privacy and freedom of speech of ordinary citizens. The court said it could not just stand there and ignore allegations that Pegasus affected the individual rights of the citizenry as a whole.
The court took special care to highlight in its order about how the government refused to take a “clear stand” in court on whether the allegations were true or not. Even repeated suggestions made by the court to file a detailed affidavit in response to the allegations produced no effect on the government, which had ended up filing a two-page affidavit “providing no light” and, at the very most, a “vague denial”. This, the court noted, when the first allegations of Pegasus snooping had surfaced two years ago.
“There was no specific denial of the allegations by the Union of India… Had the Union of India made its stand clear, there would have been less burden on the court,” Chief Justice Ramana said.
The court dismissed the state’s apprehension that any disclosure, whatsoever, on the Pegasus issue would affect national security.
Chief Justice Ramana, flanked by Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, pronounced that the government cannot get a “free pass”, citing the “bugbear” of violation of national security, when constitutional rights of the citizens were at stake. The government cannot merely evoke 'national security' to stonewall judicial review. There cannot be an omnibus denial of information. A balance has to be struck between cherished liberties and “necessary” surveillance by the State to protect the citizens’ liberties.
Chief Justice Ramana read out that every citizen has a “reasonable right to privacy,choices, liberties and freedom”. Technology is useful, but it cannot be used to take away freedoms or launch a cyberattack on privacy.
The court said the state uses surveillance but the power to spy should not affect individual rights.
The Supreme Court expressed particular concern about the protection of journalistic freedom. It said the State should not create an atmosphere that has a “chilling effect” on the freedom of the press.
The order came on the basis of petitions filed from several quarters, including by veteran journalists N. Ram and Sashi Kumar , the Editors Guild and individuals who were the victims of the alleged snooping.
The court however declined a plea by the petitioners to have the Cabinet Secretary submit an affidavit in court, responding to Pegasus allegations.
On September 23, the court had indicated its intention to form a committee to examine allegations. The court had reserved the case for interim orders on September 13 after the government expressed reservations about filing a "detailed" affidavit responding to the allegations. The Centre had said it would be too public and compromise national security.
The court had reserved the case for order, making it clear to the government that there would be no more “beating around the bush” in the issue.