India's top court orders probe into Pegasus snooping row

October 27, 2021
Several petitions were filed in India's Supreme Court seeking a probe into the snooping allegations.
Several petitions were filed in India's Supreme Court seeking a probe into the snooping allegations.

NEW DELHI — India's top court has appointed an independent panel to investigate allegations that spyware sold to governments was used to hack phones of MPs, activists and journalists, BBC reported.

The Supreme Court's order followed multiple petitions seeking a probe into allegations of illegal surveillance.

The targets' phone numbers were on a database believed to be of interest to clients of Israeli firm NSO.

The list was leaked to major news outlets on July 18.

Indian news and opinion website The Wire and The Indian Express newspaper were among the 16 international media outlets which investigated the leaked list and the use of Pegasus spyware around the world.

NSO has denied any wrongdoing. It said the software was intended for tracking criminals and terrorists and was only sold to military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies from countries with good human rights records.

The court has given the committee, which will be headed by a former Supreme Court judge, eight weeks to investigate the allegations.

The revelations about the spyware have raised questions whether the Indian government was illegally snooping on its critics and in some cases even its own ministers.

The government has called the revelations a "highly sensational" global conspiracy.

It has maintained that it could not reveal any information on the usage of Pegasus because of of national security issues. However, it offered to form a committee of experts to look into the matter and "dispel any wrong narrative".

On Wednesday, the Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana, said the court was appointing a committee under its supervision to "probe the falsity and discover [the] truth", according to Indian website Bar and Bench.

The judge said that the alleged violation of privacy needed to be examined as it affected the rights and freedom of people. He added that such technology may also have "chilling effect" on press freedom in India.

The Pegasus revelations had sparked protests in the country and opposition leaders took up the issue in India's parliament during its monsoon session.

It is unclear where the list came from or how many phones were hacked. But of the leaked database of 500,000 numbers, more than 300 reportedly belong to Indians.

Potential targets included main opposition leaders, activists and officials.

Several activists and journalists, including those who were reportedly targeted by the spyware, filed pleas seeking answers from the government along with an inquiry headed by a sitting or retired judge of the top court.

The petitions were clubbed together by the Supreme Court which began hearing the matter on August 5.

During the hearing of the case, the government filed a "limited affidavit", claiming the allegations were based on conjecture and that "there is no substance in the accusations".

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta also argued that such matters cannot be made a matter of public debate. "No government will make public what software it is using to allow terror networks to modulate its systems and escape tracking," he said.

The court observed that it did not want to compel the government to disclose information about security, but only wanted information on whether phones of people had been intercepted.

October 27, 2021
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