Pegasus-Affected Journalists, Activist Move SC, Want Govt to Come Clean on Spyware Use

Forensic test of phones of two petitioners, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and S.N.M. Abdi, confirms Pegasus attack, intrusive surveillance.

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New Delhi: Stating that a forensic examination has confirmed that their phones have been hacked using Pegasus spyware, four journalists – Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, S.N.M. Abdi, Prem Shankar Jha and Rupesh Kumar Singh – and activist Ipsa Shatakshi moved the Supreme Court on Monday, August 2, according to LiveLaw.in.

Three separate petitions, all on similar lines, were filed by the petitioners – one by Thakurta, one by Abidi and Jha, and one by Singh and Shatakshi. The petitioners appealed to the court to direct the Union government to put forward materials “with respect to all investigation, authorisation and/or order(s) pertaining to the use of Pegasus on the Petitioner”.

In their petition, the aggrieved individuals said that “unauthorised surveillance by government agencies” has violated their fundamental rights guaranteed to them under the Indian constitution.

This is the first time that individuals who have been personally affected by Pegasus spyware have approached the court. Earlier, senior journalists N.Ram and Sashi Kumar had filed a PIL  (public interest litigation) before the Supreme Court to probe into the Pegasus spyware attacks. The PIL will be heard by a bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana on August 5.

Also read: Revealed: How The Wire and Its Partners Cracked the Pegasus Project and What It Means for India

In the latest petition by five journalists, the petitioners claimed that they strongly believe that they have been subjected to “deeply intrusive surveillance and hacking by the Government of India or some other third party”. They also highlight that the Union government is yet to make a categorical denial that it had availed of the Pegasus spyware manufactured by Israel’s NSO Group. “The Respondent authorities also failed to unequivocally deny the fact that they had purchased/obtained the Pegasus malware from NSO and/or the state of Israel,” Thakurta’s petition reads.

The petitioners contended that such sophisticated unauthorised surveillance would create a “chilling effect” on the fundamental right to free speech, besides violating their individual right to privacy. They feared that it would discourage informants and whistleblowers from shedding light on wrongdoings of the government, thereby have an adverse impact on prompting transparency in governance across the country.

Thakurta’s petition, for instance, argued, “The persons that hacked the Petitioner’s device have obtained access not only to the most private and intimate details of his personal life but have also gained access to who his confidential sources have been and what information they have provided him. Consequently, the Petitioner apprehends some of these sources will suffer adverse consequences as a result of the breach of the Petitioner’s fundamental rights and that the existence of the Pegasus software will have a tremendous chilling effect on the right to free speech in India.”

The petitions also drew the attention of the court to the situation in France where the official cybersecurity agency there had confirmed Pegasus spyware attacks on two journalists related to Mediapart, an online investigative portal. In the same breath, the petition pointed out that no such action had been taken in India, highlighting that the Government of India is yet to acknowledge the issue.

“…[F]ar from investigating how this happened, the very Government that is meant to protect these rights refuses to issue a categorical statement to the effect that the Union of India and/or its agencies have never purchased/licensed the Pegasus malware or even that they have never used it against journalists, advocates and human rights activists in India,” the petitions said.

Appealing to the court to declare the use of Pegasus spyware by the government or any of its agencies as “illegal and constitutional”, the petitioners urged the court to issue necessary steps to the Union government to take appropriate measures to protect the right to privacy of Indian citizens.

They also urged the court to direct the Union government to ensure that a judicial oversight mechanism is in place to deal with any complaints on illegal breaches of privacy and hacking and to punish government officials for any breaches.

The Pegasus Project is a collaborative investigation that involves more than 80 journalists from 17 news organisations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Read all our coverage here.