Raveendran Justice Committee found no conclusive evidence of Pegasus being used against dissidents: SC
THE On August 24, the Supreme Court opened the sealed cover containing the reports of the technical committee, as well as its former supervising judge, who was appointed by it in October last year to probe the veracity of the allegations against the government of l Union for its use of Israeli spyware Pegasus to target activists, journalists, politicians, judges and government officials.
The bench, consisting of Chief Justice of India (“CJI”) NV Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, considered the report in open court. CJI Ramana informed the court that the reports are divided into three parts. He also informed lawyers appearing in the case that the technical committee examined 29 phones. Among them, five phones contained malware, but the technical committee said it could not be considered Pegasus.
On the role of the Union government, CJI Ramana said that it is clear from the Pegasus report that the government did not cooperate with the committee. She took the same position as before the Supreme Court.
The CJI also added that former Supreme Court Justice RV Raveendran, who oversaw the Pegasus committee, recommended changes to the existing law governing surveillance in the country. Additionally, Justice Raveendran recommended that privacy protections be strengthened as well as the nation’s cybersecurity.
CJI Ramana said Judge Raveendran’s report would be uploaded to the court’s website, but the technical committee’s report would be uploaded in a redacted form because committee members requested that certain personal data be withheld.
On October 27, 2021, the Supreme Court formed a committee overseen by Justice Raveendran, assisted by former Indian Police Service (1976 batch) officer Alok Joshi, and Dr. Sundeep Oberoi, Chairman of the Sub-Committee of ( International Organization for Standardization / International Electrotechnical Commission / Joint Technical Committee).
In addition, it had three technical members:
- Dr. Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, Professor (Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics) and Dean, National University of Forensic Sciences, Gandhinagar, Gujarat.
- Dr Prabaharan P., Professor (School of Engineering), Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Amritapuri, Kerala.
- Dr. Ashwin Anil Gumaste, Institute Chair Associate Professor (Computer Science and Engineering), Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, Maharashtra.
The court said it was obligated to form the independent committee because:
- The right to privacy and freedom of expression would have been affected, which needed to be examined.
- All citizens are affected by such allegations because of their potential deterrent effect.
- No clear position has been taken by the Union government regarding the measures it has taken.
- The seriousness given to the allegations of foreign countries and the involvement of foreign parties.
- The possibility that a foreign authority, agency or private entity was involved in putting the citizens of that country under surveillance.
- Allegations that Union or state governments are complicit in the disenfranchisement of citizens.
- Restriction under written competence to elaborate on factual aspects. For example, even the issue of the use of technology on citizens, which is a jurisdictional fact, has been contested and required further factual examination.
The Committee was to investigate, investigate and determine:
- Whether the Pegasus spyware suite has been used on Indian citizens’ phones or other devices to access stored data, eavesdrop on conversations, intercept information and/or for any other purpose.
- Details of the victims and/or those affected by such a spyware attack, and what measures/actions have been taken by the Union Government after the publication of reports in 2019 of the hacking of Indian citizens’ WhatsApp accounts, using the Pegasus Spyware Suite.
- If a Pegasus spyware suite was acquired by the Union government, or a state government, or a central or state agency, for use against Indian citizens?
- If a government agency used the Pegasus spyware suite on citizens of that country, under what law, rule, guideline, protocol, or legal process was such deployment made?
- If a national entity/person has used the spyware on citizens of that country, is such use permitted?
- Any other matter or aspect which may be related, ancillary or incidental to the above terms of reference, which the Committee may deem fit and proper to investigate.
“The state cannot get a pass every time by raising national security concerns. No omnibus ban can be opposed to judicial review.said the Supreme Court.
The Union government had informed the court that it did not wish to file a detailed affidavit in this case. Whether the government used particular software for the authorized interception was not a matter for legal debate, India’s Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had said, reiterating that the government was willing to constitute a committee of experts in the field who could look into the matter.