BREAKING: Supreme Court appoints expert Committee to probe Pegasus controversy allegations

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In a batch of pleas seeking Court-monitored Probe into the Pegasus Controversy, the Supreme Court has appointed a committee headed by Justice RV Raveendran (Retired SC Judge), while rejecting the plea of the Union of India to allow them to appoint an Expert Committee for the purposes of investigating the allegations.

The overseeing Judge will be assisted in this task by Mr. Alok Joshi, former IPS officer (1976 batch) & Dr. Sundeep Oberoi, Chairman, Sub Committee in (International Organisation of Standardisation/International Electro-Technical Commission/Joint
Technical Committee).

A bench of Chief Justice of India NV RamanaJustice Surya Kant and Justice Aniruddha Bose pointed out that the need for appointing such a committee emanates on account of the facts and circumstances of the present case. “Justice must not only be done, but also be seen to be done,” said the bench.

The bench stated that the probe into the truth or falsity of certain allegations is pertinent, taking into account the public importance and the alleged scope and nature of the large-scale violation of the fundamental rights of the citizens of the country.

In this context, it stated,

“The compelling circumstances that have weighed with us to pass such an order are as follows:
i. Right to privacy and freedom of speech are alleged to be impacted, which needs to be examined.
ii. The entire citizenry is affected by such allegations due to the potential chilling effect.
iii. No clear stand taken by the Respondent-Union of India regarding actions taken by it.
iv. Seriousness accorded to the allegations by foreign countries and involvement of foreign parties.
v. Possibility that some foreign authority, agency or private entity is involved in placing citizens of this country under surveillance.
vi. Allegations that the Union or State Governments are party to the rights’ deprivations of the citizens.
vii. Limitation under writ jurisdiction to delve into factual aspects. For instance, even the question of usage of the technology on citizens, which is the jurisdictional fact, is disputed and requires further factual examination.”

Earlier, the Centre had denied all allegations stating that the petitions are based on “conjectures and surmises or on other unsubstantiated media reports or uncorroborated material”. It has been added that in order to “dispel false narratives by certain vested interests,” the Union of India will constitute a Committee of Experts, which will go into all aspects of the issue.

Later, Refusing to file an affidavit on the specific use of Pegasus spyware software against civil society members and journalists, the Centre told the Supreme Court through Solicitor General of India (SGI) Tushar Mehta that, it has "filed an affidavit stating that in view of prevailing statutes, we are in compliance" and that an inquiry committee would be set up to look into the matter. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta also told the court that in the interest of national security, the matter could not be made a part of "public discourse".

On 19th July 2021, a consortium of 17 international media organizations including an Indian news portal published an investigation around a leaked list of phone numbers from across the world, named the Pegasus Project.

These numbers in the leaked list are allegedly the “target list” of phones hacked /to be hacked by the Pegasus spyware product sold by Israel’s NSO Group.

The target list is said to contain the numbers of 136 prominent politicians, judges, journalists, businessmen, rights activists, etc.

NSO Group, which owns ‘Pegasus Spyware’, was sued by WhatsApp and Facebook in 2019 before the US Californian Court for exploiting its platform to carry out remote surveillances. NSO claimed sovereign immunity as its products were sold only to governments and state agencies. However, The Californian Court ruled in favor of WhatsApp and dismissed NSO’s claim.

The plea seeks court-monitored probe by Special Investigation Team into the reports of alleged snooping using Israeli spyware Pegasus.

Advocate Sharma mentioned in his plea stated that, “the Pegasus scandal is a matter of grave concern and a serious attack upon Indian democracy, judiciary and country security. The widespread and unaccountable use of surveillance is morally disfiguring.”

He further added, “Privacy is not about the wish to hide, as is often asserted. It is about having a space of one’s own where our thoughts and being are not the instrument of someone else’s purposes.”

“Pegasus is not just a surveillance tool. It is a cyber-weapon being unleashed on the Indian polity. Even if authorised (which is doubtful), the use of Pegasus poses a national security risk.” – stated plea

Read Full Judgement: Click Here

Case Title: ML Sharma v. PM | N. Ram v. UOI | Editors Guild of India v. UOI