The Supreme Court on Thursday asked the Centre’s response on a batch of petitions seeking independent probe into use of Israel’s Pegasus spyware to snoop into phones of eminent people, including politicians and members of judiciary. It said, “Allegations of snooping are serious if the reports regarding it are correct.”
A bench comprising Chief Justice NV Ramana and justice Surya Kant said it was not going into the facts of each case and if some people claimed that their phones were intercepted, then there is the Telegraph Act under which complaints can be filed. “No doubt, the allegations are serious if the newspaper reports are true,” the CJI said, but wondered why no serious concern was shown when such charges came to light first in May 2019.
“Reports of snooping came to light in 2019. I do not know whether any efforts were made to get more information,” the CJI observed while asking why no one has filed a criminal complaint about illegal interception under the IT and the Telegraph Act in connection with the Pegasus row. While refraining from issuing a formal notice, the CJI asked all the petitioners to serve their copies to the Union government. The top court also posted the matter for hearing on Tuesday.
Senior counsel Kapil Sibal, appearing for journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar, submitted that it was clear that NSO makes the spyware and Pegasus is a rogue technology and infiltrates our life without our knowledge. “All that it requires a phone and enters into our lives. It is an assault on privacy, human dignity and value of our human republic, it penetrates into our national internet backbone,” he said.
The government needed to clarify if the government bought and used it to spy on citizens, he argued, adding that the company itself had said that it sold the spyware to only “vetted governments”.
The bench, however, said, “there is the (issue of) credibility of material, verifiable material based on which we can order an investigation. People who have filed these petitions are more knowledgeable and resourceful. They should have put more hard work to put more material. This came into public information two years ago. …We don’t want to say all newspaper reports, reputed journalists’ content are hearsay or not believable …I don’t want to say that pleas don’t have anything. Some of the petitioners are not affected and some claim their phones are hacked. But they have not made efforts to file a criminal complaint,” the CJI said.
Sibal told the court that “we have no direct access to the information. There are 37 verified cases of interception”.
Referring to proceedings in a California court, he also said that the governments in France and USA have taken actions based on newspapers reports about snooping individuals, activists, journalists and others.
Other lawyers contended that it was not a question of individual complaints, but the issue has wider dimensions affecting right to privacy.
The judges also came down heavily on advocate ML Sharma for making Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a party in his petition for a court-monitored SIT probe into the Pegasus snooping scandal. “You have included certain individuals (Prime Minister as respondent in the petition)….we can’t issue notice like this. Don’t try to take advantage of things…you have defective memo of parties,” the CJI told Sharma.
The SC was hearing as many as nine petitions, including one filed by the Editors Guild of India, seeking an independent probe into the alleged snooping by government agencies on eminent citizens, politicians and scribes by using Israeli cyber-intelligence firm NSO’s spyware Pegasus. Other petitioners also include politicians such as Rajya Sabha Member John Brittas, social activist Jagdeep Chhokar, apart from journalists such as N. Ram, Sashi Kumar, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Rupesh Kumar Singh and others.
An international media consortium had reported that over 300 verified Indian mobile phone numbers were on the list of potential targets for surveillance using Pegasus spyware.