N. Ram, Sashi Kumar move SC

July 28, 2021 12:00 am | Updated 06:19 am IST - NEW DELHI

Petition seeks probe into snooping row and full disclosure from the government

Senior journalists N. Ram and Sashi Kumar have moved the Supreme Court seeking an independent probe headed by a former or sitting judge of the court into the alleged 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 said, “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”.

It sought a full disclosure from the government on whether it had authorised snooping which, it said, seemed to be an attempt to muzzle free speech and to chill dissent. The government had still not given a straight answer to whether the illegal hack was done with its blessings, it noted.

“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,” it highlighted.

‘Civilians targeted’

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, it stated.

“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,” it pointed out.

The software, manufactured by Israeli cyberarms firm NSO Group Technologies Limited, is “extremely advanced and capable of infecting a mobile phone/device without any interaction with the owner”. “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,” the petition noted.

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