Supreme Court directs Technical Committee to expedite investigation on Pegasus

The Supreme Court has now directed the technical committee it appointed to investigate the use of Pegasus spyware on Indian citizens to submit its report to the overseeing Judge of the committee [Justice RV Raveendran (retd.)] expeditiously.

20 May, 2022
4 min read

tl;dr

The committee of technical experts constituted by the Supreme Court to investigate the use of Pegasus spyware on Indian citizens submitted its interim report to the Supreme Court in a “taped envelope” on 06.01.2022. The report was placed before the Court on 20.05.2022 and examined by the Bench of the Supreme Court led by the Chief Justice of India. As per the report, the technical committee has received 29 phones so far, and has developed their own software to examine phones for the use of the spyware. The Court has now directed the technical committee to submit its report to the overseeing Judge of the committee [Justice RV Raveendran (retd.)] expeditiously.

Why should you care?

Pegasus spyware has been revealed to be used to snoop on Indian ministers, opposition leaders, journalists, the legal community, businessmen, government officials, scientists, rights activists and others. Pegasus spyware is a zero-click spyware which can be used to access all data on a mobile device without the user’s knowledge. The use of such invasive technologies hampers the fundamental right to privacy and threatens the democratic ideals of our country. It also has a chilling effect on the freedom of press as it prevents journalists from reporting on sensitive matters, some of which may also be against the ruling government, without jeopardising themselves and the personal safety of their sources.

Background

Rupesh Kumar Singh and Ipsa Shatakshi are reputed independent activists and journalists who report on issues faced by Adivasis in Jharkhand. On 18.07.2021, they, along with other journalists, activists and Indian citizens, found that their phone numbers formed a part of a leaked database accessed by Paris-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International. The database contained names and numbers of individuals whose phones may have been targeted with the Pegasus spyware by clients of the NSO Group (developer of Pegasus). Pegasus is a spyware that is installed on a phone without the victim’s knowledge and/or consent, or even any action on their part. According to NSO, Pegasus spyware is sold exclusively to vetted government clients.

On 05.08.2021, they filed a petition before the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of use of spyware such as Pegasus. They argued that the government of India has violated the right to privacy, right to freedom of speech and expression, and the right to life of Indian citizens whose phones might have been infected with Pegasus. In their petition, they also asked the Court to direct the government to disclose all documents related to the use of Pegasus.

On 27.10.2021, the Supreme Court, noting the importance of protecting the anonymity of journalistic sources to ensure the existence of a free press, constituted a committee of technical experts to investigate the use of the Pegasus spyware on Indian Citizens.

Committee’s Interim Report

As per the Supreme Court’s Office report, the overseeing Judge (retd.) of the committee submitted an interim report on 06.01.2022 in a “Taped Envelope” before the Supreme Court. A copy of the same was not provided to any of the petitioners. This interim report was placed before the Bench led by the Chief Justice of India on 20.05.2022 and was read out in open court. The report provided an update on the working of the committee and stated that the committee has received 29 mobile devices for examination. The report also indicates that notices have been issued to government agencies and journalists, but interestingly, the official website of the committee has not listed any deposition or statement by a government official or agency.

Technical Committee has developed its own software

Notably, the interim report discloses that the committee has devised its own software for the purpose of examining the mobile devices and determining whether they were infected by the Pegasus Spyware. The Committee, on its website, has also recognised that Amnesty International’s Mobile Verification Toolkit (link available on github) is a “good source for evaluation”. This lends further credence to the findings shared by Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories in July, 2021, especially, since reports by the Wire and Washington Post have indicated that Amnesty International's Security Lab definitively verified that 37 phones were targeted by the spyware.

The technical committee had also reached out to IFF for a response on the legality of surveillance in India. We had provided a detailed response to assist the committee’s proceedings.

Committee Directed to submit final report expeditiously

The overseeing Judge (retd.) in the interim report sought time till 20.06.2022 for submission of the final report, which was granted by the Court. The Court has also directed the technical committee which is examining the mobile devices to complete the investigation expeditiously, preferably within 4 weeks, and place it before the overseeing Judge (retd.) who is directed to submit the final report at the earliest.

A period of eight months has passed since the constitution of the committee of technical experts and we hope that the report is filed and made public expeditiously. The matter is now directed to be listed towards the end of July, 2022.

The petitioners, Mr. Singh and Ms. Shatakshi, were represented by Senior Advocate Arvind Datar. He was briefed by the legal team comprising AOR Prateek Chadha, Advocates Mihir Naniwadekar, Vrinda Bhandari, Tanmay Singh, Ayushi Rajput, Krishnesh Bapat, Anandita Mishra, and Amala Dasarathi and Nikhil Dave (intern at IFF).

We thank Mr Rupesh Singh and Ms Ipsa Shatakshi for granting us an opportunity to provide legal assistance to them. We are also grateful to other journalists and civil society members who sought our expertise.

We thank the lawyers who worked on this case, especially Senior Advocate Arvind P. Datar, who has led the legal team. We also thank Senior Advocate, Mr. Rakesh Dwivedi for leading on Mr. SNM Abdi’s and Mr. Prem Shankar Jha’s petition, and advocate Eklavya Dwivedi for providing valuable legal assistance on the matter.

We will keep you posted on the next date of hearing.

Important Documents

  1. Supreme Court order dated 20.05.2022 (link)
  2. Supreme Court order dated 27.10.2021 (link)
  3. Writ Petition filed by Mr Singh and Ms Shatakshi (link)
  4. Previous post titled ‘SC appoints a committee to examine the use of Pegasus Spyware in India’ dated 27.10.2021 (link)
  5. Previous post titled ‘Pegasus: Rupesh Kumar Singh and Ipsa Shatakshi and other journalists approach SC’ 05.08.2021 (link)

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