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New Delhi: Two veteran journalists – former editor of The Hindu N. Ram and chairman of the Asian College of Journalism Sashi Kumar – have filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a court-ordered investigation into the Pegasus spyware revelations.
Over the last 10 days, a global consortium of 17 media groups including The Wire have been publishing a series known as the Pegasus Project. The project is based on a leaked database of phone numbers of people who were either persons of interest or forensically identified as having been targeted by clients of the Israeli NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. The NSO Group has repeatedly said that it only sells Pegasus to “vetted governments”.
In India, forensic evaluation showed that at least 10 devices – belonging to a political strategist, senior journalists and others – had either been successfully infected or witnessed a hacking attempt.
The petition asks the court to order the Government of India to reveal whether it or any agencies related to it had obtained a license for or used the Pegasus spyware, and whether the spyware was used at any point to carry out surveillance on Indian citizens.
“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 is also concerning to note that the the Respondents [the Union government] have not categorically ruled out obtaining Pegasus licenses to conduct surveillance in their response, and have taken no steps to ensure a credible and independent investigation into these extremely serious allegations,” Ram and Kumar say in their petition.
If surveillance of this kind was carried out, the petition says, it is a violation of the fundamental right to privacy. “The Pegasus hack is a direct attack on communicational, intellectual and informational privacy, and critically endangers the meaningful exercise of privacy in these contexts.”
This sort of surveillance, it continues, is also a violation of an individual’s freedom of expression and is likely to have a chilling effect on free speech. “The specific targeting of scores of journalists is an attack on the freedom of the press, and seriously abridges the right to know, which is an essential component of the right to free speech and expression,” it reads.
Another issue the petition points out is how India’s legal surveillance regime has been completely bypassed here. “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. …Neither of these mandatory conditions have been met in the present case, rendering the surveillance wholly illegal.”
The plea has also sought a probe by a sitting or retired judge of the Supreme Court, to see how and to what extent government agencies in India may have used the spyware.