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On Thursday, August 25, the Supreme Court highlighted that out of the 29 devices it had been given, five had been found to contain “malware” by the technical committee established to look into whether Indian law enforcement agencies had purchased and utilised Pegasus, a military-grade Israeli spyware programme. The Union government “did not comply,” according to the bench, with the expert committee.
However, a bench of the Chief Justice of India, Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli declared that the committee had not discovered any solid evidence indicating that Pegasus was the malware present in the tested phones.
The committee, which was under the charge of Justice R.V. Raveendran, a retired Supreme Court justice, notified the court that it had received no cooperation from the administration, according to the bench.
CJI Ramana said to Tushar Mehta, who was defending the Union government, “The same position you adopted here, you have taken there.”
I am not aware of that, according to LiveLaw’s real-time tweets from the hearing.
SG Mehta stated during oral arguments before the Supreme Court in August of last year that forcing the government to disclose whether or not it utilises Pegasus malware would expose terrorists and jeopardise national security.
The top court had stated that it had no choice but to form an impartial committee to look into the matter in the absence of any “particular denial” of the Union government’s usage of Pegasus.
Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, professor of cyber security and digital forensics and dean of the National Forensic Sciences University in Gandhinagar, Gujarat; Prabaharan P., professor at the School of Engineering at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Kerala; and Ashwin Anil Gumaste, Institute Chair Associate Professor of computer science and engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, make up the three members of the technical committee that is advising the investigation.
The Pegasus Project, a 2021 global media investigation of which The Wire was a part, found traces of Pegasus on the phones of human rights activists, attorneys, journalists, and politicians in more than ten countries worldwide, including India. The committee’s investigation was anticipated to shed more light on these findings.
It was discovered that only governments, not ordinary individuals, were the recipients of the spyware.
According to a January 2022 New York Times article, the Union government likely paid “millions” of dollars for India’s acquisition of Pegasus, which was a component of a larger 2017 transaction.
The Supreme Court stated at the hearing on Thursday that the committee’s report was “massive.” It also stated that it was reluctant to share the report in its entirety, noting that some committee members who had turned in their phones had asked that it not be done so because their phones included private and confidential information. The Supreme Court was informed by the committee that the report was not intended for public consumption.
However, the Supreme Court announced that it would post the report that the supervising retired judge, Justice Raveendran, had provided to it on its website. According to the CJI’s testimony in court today, this report makes recommendations for safeguarding citizens, future courses of action, accountability, revising the law to increase privacy protection, grievance redressal procedures, etc.
Today, the Supreme Court declared that the committee’s report had two more portions, in addition to Justice Raveendran’s comment.
According to LiveLaw, the two additional sections deal with the topics in paragraphs 61A and 61B of the court’s initial order. Digital photos are included in the set.
The report includes information in addition to the content retrieved from the private mobile phones of the 29 who voluntarily turned in their phones for malware and public research material.
Until March 31, the expert group has invited public feedback on 11 related questions. These responses are included in the report as well.
The Wire has disclosed up to 161 identities of people who could have been harmed by the spyware, including heads of state, politicians, activists, students, attorneys, and journalists.
To look for Pegasus remnants, a small cross-section of these phones was forensically inspected. Siddharth Varadarajan and M.K. Venu, two journalists from The Wire; election strategist Prashant Kishor; other writers including Sushant Singh, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, and S.N.M. Abdi; DU professor S.A.R. Geelani; separatist leader Bilal Lone from Kashmir; and attorney Aljo P. Joseph are among these people.
The Pegasus Spyware Row: What is it?
Following allegations that over 300 verified mobile phone numbers, including those of two Union ministers, more than 40 journalists, three opposition leaders, activists, and one sitting judge in India, may have been the targets of hacking through the Israeli spyware Pegasus, an international media consortium launched an investigation.
The IT ministry stated that there had not been any “unauthorized surveillance,” which was a denial of the charges of spying by the federal government.
If the malware was used to snoop on Indian citizens, the Opposition demanded an explanation from the Centre, accusing it of being opaque on the matter.
NSO Group, an Israeli firm that developed Pegasus, has stated that their spyware was developed solely to be used by government organisations battling terrorism and organised crime.
A group of media outlets reported that the list of prospective Pegasus spyware targets included over 300 Indian mobile phone numbers.
Rahul Gandhi, the head of the Congress, Prashant Kishor, two Union ministers (Ashwini Vaishnav and Prahlad Patel), and others had their phone numbers included in the list that had been leaked. The NSO Group has insisted that only governments and not private parties were sold the software.