The Supreme Court on Wednesday formed an independent committee of technical experts to probe the Pegasus surveillance issue, saying that the Centre did not even attempt to justify its stand on the matter. The apex court asked the committee to examine the allegations thoroughly and place the report before court. It posted the hearing after 8 weeks.
The matter related to a media investigation uncovering alleged surveillance of certain eminent Indians, including members of the Opposition parties, by hacking their phones using Israeli firm NSO's spyware, Pegasus.
Taking a serious view in the matter, a bench of Chief Justice NV Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, said that the said technical expert committee's function will be overseen by the Supreme Court of India.
"The Committee has been formed to probe the falsity and to discover the truth in Pegasus row... Violation of a citizen's Right to Privacy is a serious matter and it needs to be examined," the apex court said in its ruling, adding that there is serious concern about a foreign agency's involvement in surveilling Indians.
The bench also admonished the Centre for using national security as a blanket argument to defend its case rather than providing an objective answer. It said that national security cannot be an omnibus argument to gain a free pass every time the Court exercises judicial review. “State cannot get free pass every time by raising national security concerns. No omnibus prohibition can be called against judicial review. Centre should have justified its stand here and not render the court a mute spectator," the top court said.
The bench also observed that there has been “no specific denial” by Centre (about use of Pegasus software to snoop on private citizens). “Thus we have no option but to accept the submissions of petitioner prima facie and thus we appoint an expert committee whose function will be overseen by the Supreme Court," the top court ordered. The court's adverse obseravtion came after Centre repeatedly refused to file a detailed affidavit on the petitioners' query maintaining that it was not a matter for public discussion and will not be in the "larger national interest".
The three-member committee will be headed by former Supreme Court judge, Justice RV Raveendran and will have Alok Joshi and Sandeep Oberoi as its members.
The top court's observations on constituting the committee assume significance in view of the Centre's statement that it would set up an expert panel on its own to look into the entire issue.
Even in the the last hearing, the apex court had asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, to mention the case if the government had a re-think about filing a detailed affidavit.
The bench had said that it only wanted to know from the Centre, which expressed unwillingness to file a detailed affidavit citing national security, whether Pegasus was used to allegedly spy on individuals and if it was done lawfully.
Observing that concerns have been raised by journalists and others over violation of privacy in the Pegasus row, the top court had said it was not interested in knowing the details related to national security.
The Centre maintained it did not wish to file a detailed affidavit on whether a particular software is used or not as it was not a matter for public discussion and will not be in the "larger national interest".
The law officer had contended that the disclosure whether the country was using a particular software or not may cause harm and alert all potential targets, including terror groups.
"We had to have your affidavit to understand your stand. We do not want to say anything further, the court had told Mehta, adding that if a spyware is used by the government then it has to be as per the procedure established by the law.
The law officer had said the government has nothing to hide and that is why the Centre has on its own said it will constitute a committee of domain experts who will look into the allegations and report to the court.
I am not averse to certain individuals claiming invasion of privacy. This is serious and must be gotten into. The question is whether it is Pegasus or something. Our stand is putting this into an affidavit will not serve national interest... Hence allow us to form a committee of domain experts without the government members, Mehta had added.
The apex court was hearing a batch of pleas, including senior journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar along with the Editors Guild of India, seeking an independent probe into the alleged Pegasus snooping matter.
The pleas seeking independent probe are related to reports of alleged snooping by government agencies on eminent citizens, politicians and scribes by using Israeli firm NSO's spyware Pegasus.
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.
With inputs from agencies