As the SC committee prepares to submit its report soon, here’s what we know about the work being done
New Delhi: Eight months after an expert panel was set up to determine whether Indian law enforcement bought and used Israeli military-grade spyware Pegasus, the panel has yet to submit its findings to the court supreme.
The investigation is expected to shed more light on the findings of Project Pegasus – a 2021 global media investigation that found traces of Pegasus on the phones of human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and politicians in more from 10 countries across the globe including India.
The spyware is made by Israel’s NSO Group and, according to the company, is only licensed to “approved governments.”
At a hearing in May 2022, the Supreme Court reviewed an interim report that had been submitted and granted the Inquiry Committee, which is headed by former Supreme Court Justice Justice RV Raveendran, time until June 20 to complete its work.
Thread learned that the panel will submit a final report shortly, probably before the end of this month. Chief Justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana, who led the bench that ordered the inquest, is due to retire on August 26, 2022.
What was the mandate of the committee?
The mandate of the inquiry committee was set by the Supreme Court in October 2021. In a nutshell, the committee had three main tasks. The first was whether Pegasus was used on the phones of Indian citizens and if so, the details of the victims.
The second was to confirm whether Pegasus had been acquired by a central or state agency and used against Indian citizens Finally, if it turned out that Pegasus had indeed been used by an Indian agency, to examine whether such use was legal and authorized.
What we know the committee has done so far
Over the past eight months, the work of the Pegasus probe panel has been funneled down three different paths. They are:
1. Digital forensics: The technical committee, whose work is overseen by Judge Raveendran, collected 29 smartphones for analysis. These devices mostly belong to people identified by Project Pegasus as having been potential targets. The committee presumably examined the phones forensically for evidence of Pegasus targeting or infection.
2. Collection of declarations: The panel interviewed a number of expert witnesses, parliamentarians and Pegasus targets. According to the committee’s website, 13 people testified, including technical experts Anand V. and Sandeep Shukla. Others who testified include The wire is Siddharth Varadarajan and Professor David Kaye, who until 2020 was 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 reported that the panel has begun contacting various state governments. For example, in April 2022, the committee contacted all of the state’s “Directors General of Police” (DGPs) to ask if they had purchased the spyware from the NSO Group.
“Has any state, state police, state intelligence, or agency within state or union government territory with access to Pegasus spyware used it on a citizen Indian ? If so, whether one or more authorizations or sanctions for such use have been obtained and if so from whom,” the Secretary General of the Supreme Court asked all the DGPs citing the questions of the technical committee.
What we don’t know about committee work
While the Pegasus panel’s website transparently documents progress in some areas, the public is less informed about others, particularly regarding the committee’s interactions with the Narendra Modi government.
For example, it is unclear whether bureaucrats working with the Interior Ministry, intelligence agencies and the office of the National Security Adviser were called in for deposition or asked to provide statements. If so, the committee’s website does not reflect this, even though the testimony of all civil society actors has been clearly documented.
It is also unclear whether organizations such as the NSO Group or Citizen Lab (which published the first analysis of Pegasus’ activity in India in 2018) were questioned or cooperated in providing evidence. This point is particularly important because we don’t know the exact methodology the Technical Committee uses to forensically analyze the phones they have collected. The committee’s website says it’s open to using Amnesty International’s MVT toolkit, but still doesn’t provide a full picture of how they will decide if a device has been targeted or infected by Pegasus. .
Finally, during the Supreme Court hearings in 2021, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta indicated that national security concerns prevented the Modi government from publicly disclosing whether or not it purchased Pegasus. The best lawyer added that the government would however disclose all the details before the committee.
In January 2022, the New York Times reported that India’s purchase of Pegasus was part of a larger 2017 deal and likely cost the Center “millions” of dollars.
It’s unclear what the panel plans to do if the Center blocks its motions, particularly because it’s unclear whether the committee has specific powers to subpoena documents or records.