The Supreme Court of India has ordered an independent investigation into whether the government improperly spied on journalists, activists, and political opponents using the surveillance program Pegasus.
After years of stonewalling by Narendra Modi’s administration, the decision on Wednesday to establish an independent committee to investigate if and how the Indian state utilized the Israeli spyware program was a big triumph for privacy advocates.
The order came in response to reports that several Indian journalists and activists had been victims of Pegasus, a cyber-weapon capable of hacking a target’s smartphone, extracting its contents, and turning on the device’s microphone and camera, according to the Guardian and a group of reporting partners.
The media’s examination of infected phones, as well as a larger list of over 50,000 phone numbers thought to have been picked as individuals of interest by clients of Pegasus’ maker, NSO Group, clearly suggested that the Indian government was employing the technology. Delhi has steadfastly refused to clarify whether it has access to it.
Three cybersecurity specialists will serve on the group, which will be led by a retired supreme court justice. In two months, it will present its report.
The justices criticized the government’s failure to reveal any specifics of what the software was used for and why, using a phrase from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in a judgement that began with a quote from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. They claimed Delhi had only provided a “vague… rejection of charges.”
“By citing national security concerns, the state cannot always obtain a free pass. “There can be no sweeping bar against judicial review,” the justices declared.
The decision was hailed by Siddharth Varadarajan, the founder-editor of the Indian non-profit website the Wire, which collaborated with the Guardian on the Pegasus project. “It’s a good beginning.” “The Supreme Court has correctly rejected the government’s ‘national security’ argument,” he remarked.
As part of its fact-finding mission, the expert panel will be able to summon witnesses and get documents, and if people or the government refuse to comply, it will be able to issue unfavorable findings against them. The court set a new hearing date after the committee’s deadline, suggesting that it wanted to pursue the case further.
The opposition in India has accused the Modi administration of treason and “unforgivable sacrilege” in response to disclosures from the Pegasus project revealing that the software was used to target multiple journalists, activists, and an election strategist.
Hundreds of confirmed Indian phone numbers emerged among the hacked records of 50,000 numbers, including those of opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, according to the articles.
The Pegasus project, an investigation of the Israeli spyware company NSO Group revealed earlier this year, was led by a group of 17 news organizations, including the Guardian, Washington Post, and the French NGO Forbidden Stories.
The National Security Agency (NSA) has said that its hacking software is solely intended for use by government clients conducting legitimate investigations into severe crimes. When it received “credible information,” the corporation claimed it conducted extensive investigations into complaints of abuse.
The Indian government has long refused to admit whether it utilizes Pegasus, and in the current case, it only submitted a brief document that “did not cast any light on their position or give any clarification as to the facts of the situation at hand,” according to the court.
Senior government officials stated at the time of the Pegasus project discoveries that the reports, which covered the abuse of spyware in more than ten nations, were part of a “anti-India” effort timed to coincide with the start of the Indian parliament’s monsoon session.
The subject of whether the Indian government has access to Pegasus, independent from whether it has used it against journalists and other civil society actors, is extremely delicate because India’s surveillance laws permit eavesdropping but prohibit “hacking,” even by the government.
Pegasus malware, which introduces harmful code into a smartphone’s operating system and lets it to take control of the device, is a clear case of hacking, according to Indian attorneys, and so its usage may be criminal, regardless of who it was used against.
Lawyers and privacy groups praised the ruling, saying it has far-reaching ramifications for the government’s responsibility on “security matters.” “Traditionally in India, [the government] would argue national security and the court would take a hands-off attitude,” Vrinda Bhandari, a lawyer engaged in the Pegasus case, said.
“This is one of the only occasions the court has said unequivocally that a ritualistic chanting of ‘national security’ is not permissible… The government’s citation of national security isn’t adequate; the court expects it to back up its claim with specific evidence.”
The administration had offered to assemble its own panel of experts during previous sessions, but this was rejected by the judges on Wednesday, who opened the hearing by expressing “Orwellian fears” about the exploitation of technology.
The justices stated that indiscriminate eavesdropping could not be tolerated, citing the “chilling” effect it may have on freedom of expression and press. They were driven to “establish the truth and get to the bottom of the situation,” they continued.