India’s supreme court has appointed a panel to investigate allegations that the country’s federal government deployed Israeli military-grade spyware to monitor smartphones belonging to opposition politicians, journalists, civil rights activists, businessmen and lawyers, amongst others.
Reacting on Wednesday to multiple petitions demanding an investigation into claims of widespread illegal surveillance using the Pegasus spyware, chief justice NV Ramana said the three-member inquiry committee would “probe the falsity and discover the truth”.
Rejecting pleas by the government that national security concerns involving surveillance necessitated a veil of secrecy, he said that the alleged violation of privacy needed examining, as it adversely affected people’s rights and freedoms. Snooping on them via Pegasus, Justice Ramana added, could have a “chilling effect” on India’s press freedom.
The court has given the inquiry committee, headed by a former supreme court judge, eight weeks to complete its findings.
In July a group of 17 global media organisations, including the Washington Post, the Guardian and Indian news website the Wire, simultaneously revealed, via the umbrella Pegasus Project, a list of 50,000 telephone numbers that had been identified for surveillance by the Israeli spyware for at least two years, until 2019.
In addition to the numbers of known criminals and terrorists – the intended target of the spyware originally created by Israel’s NSO Group Technologies – were those of heads of state, top politicians, human rights activists, journalists, diplomats, businessmen and others from 24 countries. These reportedly included about 300 Indians.
NSO has denied any wrongdoing, stating the Pegasus software was sold exclusively to military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies of countries with good human rights records.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government dismissed allegations of snooping as “baseless” but declined to say whether it had procured the Pegasus software or not.
Minister of electronics and information technology Ashwini Vaishnaw told parliament in July that all electronic interception in defence of national security had followed due process of law. But he declined to specify whether the government had employed Pegasus for this purpose or executed surveillance – which he tacitly conceded it was engaged in – via indigenously developed means.
India’s solicitor general Tushar Mehta subsequently argued in the supreme court that matters of surveillance could not become subject to public debate.
In response, the court observed that it did not want the government to reveal information regarding national security, but only sought information on whether the smartphones of people other than terrorists or criminals had been spied upon.