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New Delhi: Eight months after an expert committee was set up to probe whether Indian law enforcement authorities had procured and used Pegasus, a military-grade Israeli spyware product, the panel is yet to submit its findings to the Supreme Court.
The probe is expected to shed further light on the findings of the Pegasus Project – a 2021 global media investigation which found traces of Pegasus on the phones of human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, politicians in over 10 countries around the world including India.
The spyware is made by Israel’s NSO Group and, according to the company, is only licensed to “vetted governments”.
At a hearing in May 2022, the apex court reviewed an interim report that had been submitted and granted the probe committee, which is headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice R.V. Raveendran, time until June 20 to finish its job.
The Wire has learned that the panel will submit a final report shortly, likely before the end of this month. Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana, who headed the bench that ordered the probe, is set to retire on August 26, 2022.
What was the committee’s mandate?
The probe panel’s mandate was set out by the Supreme Court in October 2021. In a nutshell, the committee had three key tasks. The first was to find out whether Pegasus was used on the phones of Indian citizens and if so, details of the victims.
The second was to confirm whether Pegasus had been acquired by any central or state agency and used against Indian citizens Finally, if it turned out that Pegasus indeed had been used by an Indian agency, to examine whether such use was legal and authorised.
What we know the committee has done so far
Over the last eight months, the Pegasus probe panel’s work has been channeled down three different routes. They are:
1. Digital forensics: The technical committee, whose work is overseen by Justice Raveendran, has collected 29 smartphones for analysis. These devices belong mostly to people who were named by the Pegasus Project as having been potential targets. The committee has, presumably, forensically examined the phones for evidence of Pegasus targeting or infection.
2. Collecting statements: The panel has interviewed a number of expert witnesses, parliamentarians and Pegasus targets. According to the committee’s website, 13 people have deposed including technical experts Anand V. and Sandeep Shukla. Others who have given testimony include The Wire’s Siddharth Varadarajan and Professor David Kaye, who until 2020 used to be the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
3. Interfacing with state governments: Media reports have indicated that the panel has started to reach out to various state governments. For instance, in April 2022, the committee reached out to all state ‘director generals of police’ (DGP) to ask them whether they had procured the spyware from the NSO Group.
“Did any state, state police, state intelligence or agency in the state/union territory of the government having access to Pegasus spyware use this on any citizen of India? If so, whether any permission/s or sanction/s for such use was obtained and if so from whom,” the secretary general of the Supreme Court has asked all the DGPs quoting the questions of the technical committee.
What we don’t know about the committee’s work
While the Pegasus panel’s website transparently documents the progress made in some areas, the public is less informed about others – especially when it comes to the committee’s interactions with the Narendra Modi government.
For instance, it’s unclear whether bureaucrats working with the home ministry, intelligence agencies and the National Security Advisor’s office have been called for a deposition or asked to provide statements. If they have, the committee’s website doesn’t reflect this, even though the deposition of all civil society stakeholders has been clearly documented.
It’s also unclear whether organisations such as the NSO Group or Citizen Lab (which published the first analysis of Pegasus activity in India in 2018) have been interviewed or cooperated by providing evidence. This point is particularly important because we don’t know the exact methodology that the technical committee is using to forensically analyse the phones they collected. The committee’s website says it is open to using Amnesty International’s MVT toolkit, but still does not provide a full picture of how they will decide whether a device has been targeted or infected with Pegasus.
Finally, during the apex court hearings in 2021, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta indicated that national security concerns prevented the Modi government from publicly disclosing whether or not it had bought Pegasus. The top lawyer added that the government, however, would disclose all details before the committee.
In January 2022, the New York Times reported that India’s purchase of Pegasus was part of a broader 2017 contract and likely cost the Centre “millions” of dollars.
It’s unclear what the panel plans on doing if the Centre stonewalls its queries, especially because there is little clarity on whether the committee has specific powers to summon documents or records.
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