Explanation: The findings of the Pegasus Committee and what we know about the use of the Israeli malware

The Supreme Court on Thursday (August 25) checked in the report of the committee he appointed to investigate allegations that the personal communication devices of a range of people, including journalists, civil society activists, politicians, etc., were illegally targeted using spyware made in Israel Pegasus.

Pegasus case: what did the committee find?

Details are not immediately available. The report was submitted under seal.

The bench consisting of Chief Justice of India NV Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, however, pointed out in court that the Indian government had failed to cooperate with the committee. This was expected, as even before the Supreme Court earlier, the government refused to disclose whether the spyware was used to spy on citizens.

“One thing the committee said was that the Indian government did not cooperate. The same position you took here, you took there…” Live Law quoted CJI Ramana as saying at Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.

The court also revealed that the technical committee found malware in five of the 29 devices it received, but failed to determine whether the malware was Pegasus.

Additionally, the people who submitted their phones had requested that the report not be made public, and so the court would consider how much of the report should be released in the public domain.

However, the Chamber said it would publish the report submitted by the supervising judge, Judge RV Raveendran, on its website. In addition to Judge Raveendran’s report, there is the report of the technical committee which is in two parts.

As a reminder, what was the Pegasus affair?

In July 2021, a global collaborative investigative project revealed that Pegasus, a powerful spyware developed by Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO Group, may have been used to target cellphones of individuals in several countries, including India. .

Figures in a data leak contained around 300 which were known to have been used by Indian citizens, including at least two central government ministers, three opposition leaders, a constitutional authority and several journalists, society leaders civilians and businessmen.

Following an outcry, the central government has repeatedly rejected the findings of the global media investigation into the use of Pegasus and criticized the opposition’s alleged undermining of national security considerations. But he refused to provide facts on the matter and never explicitly denied the use of Pegasus.

In October 2021, the Supreme Court ordered an inquiry led by Justice Raveendran to examine allegations of unauthorized surveillance using Pegasus.

What was this committee supposed to do?

The court established seven terms of reference for the committee, which were essentially facts that needed to be verified to decide the issue.

These ranged from determining who bought Pegasus and whether the petitioners in the case were indeed targeted by the use of the software, to what laws justified the use of such spyware against citizens.

The court also asked the committee to make recommendations on a cybersecurity legal and policy framework to ensure that citizens’ right to privacy is protected.

The committee was originally scheduled to submit its report in eight weeks.

Who was appointed to this committee?

The technical committee consisted of three members: Dr. Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, Dean of Gandhinagar National University of Forensic Sciences; Dr Prabaharan P, teacher at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Kerala; and Dr. Ashwin Anil Gumaste, Institute Chair Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

Judge Raveendran was assigned to oversee the work of the committee. Justice Raveendran is a highly respected member of the legal community and has been described by CJI Ramana as “one of the legends who have raised the prestige of the Supreme Court of India”.

To oversee the work of the three-member technical committee, Judge Raveendran was to be assisted by two other experts: Alok Joshi, former head of India’s foreign intelligence agency R&AW, and Dr Sundeep Oberoi, global head of cybersecurity services at the TCS.

But why was a committee needed in the first place?

Unauthorized surveillance of personal mobile devices has been alleged to violate the fundamental rights of citizens. Decisions in cases aimed at upholding fundamental rights are based on facts. The task of determining these facts, when they are disputed or unrecognized, is often entrusted to commissions, which act as agents of the court. These commissions or investigative teams can summon people, prepare field reports and inform the court.

The case involves technical issues and required extensive fact-finding for the court to determine whether fundamental rights have been violated and issue appropriate orders. Based on the committee’s responses to the factual questions, the court would be able to consider questions such as: if the government did indeed use Pegasus, can this be justified by law? If not, what remedy should be granted to the applicants?

Do we know that Indian governments or state agencies purchased or used the spyware?

The Israeli company said that a powerful tool like Pegasus is only sold to governments or government agencies, not individuals. Moreover, what is known about the cost of a license would put it out of reach for most individual buyers, or at least not appear to them to be worth it.

But the government hasn’t committed itself to almost anything anyway. He said nothing to the Supreme Court, and the court said on August 25 that it had not cooperated with the committee either.

The Indian Express reported on January 30, 2022 that at least two cybersecurity experts had testified before the committee that there were “strong indicators” pointing to the involvement of “the state, its intelligence agencies and law enforcement” in the use of spyware for unauthorized surveillance. against individuals.

Also in January, The New York Times reported that following the Prime Minister’s visit to Israel in 2017, the Indian government purchased Pegasus as part of a $2 billion weapons package, including a missile system.

In March, the Andhra Pradesh Assembly passed a resolution to establish a committee to investigate whether the previous Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government purchased and used Pegasus. There was an outcry in the PA Assembly as it discussed statements made by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at West Bengal House days earlier that his government had turned down an offer from the group NSO for selling the spyware, but Andhra Pradesh ‘had it (Pegasus) at the time of Chandrababu (Naidu) (2014-19)’.

Banerjee said NSO Group approached the West Bengal government “four or five years ago” with a pitch to sell Pegasus to the state police for “Rs 25 crore”. This was the first direct confirmation of the attempted use of the spyware in India.

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