NEW DELHI: India’s top court on Wednesday appointed a committee to independently probe reports that phone numbers belonging to Indian journalists, politicians, and activists were found on a list of potential surveillance targets for clients of the Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group.
NSO’s Pegasus spyware is sold only to governments. Its use to infiltrate phones belonging to civilians was reported in July after an investigation by 17 international media organizations and Amnesty International. At least 1,000 numbers of high-profile figures from India appeared in the global list of more than 50,000 phone numbers, including two ministers, over 40 journalists, three opposition leaders, a judge and scores of businesspersons and activists.
Pegasus can infect both iPhones and Android devices, allowing the spyware’s users to collect messages, photos, emails, and record calls. Microphones and cameras of the infected devices can be activated covertly.
After several petitions filed in India’s Supreme Court requesting an independent probe whether the spyware has been used by the government. The court held weeks-long hearings during which it also asked the government to confirm or deny the use of Pegasus. The government declined to answer citing security concerns and offered to form its own inquiry commission.
“Allegations need to be probed,” the court bench headed by Chief Justice N. V. Ramana said in Wednesday’s ruling. “We are appointing an expert committee.”
The committee, supervised by a retired Supreme Court judge will comprise three cybersecurity experts and is expected to submit its report in two months.
“National security cannot be the bugbear that the judiciary shies away from, by virtue of its mere mentioning,” the court said. “Mere invocation of national security by the state does not render court a mute spectator.”
The government has not commented on the court decision. Sudesh Verma, spokesperson of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) declined comment.
The opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, whose phone was in the leaked records of numbers, said the Supreme Court’s move was a “big step.”
“We hope the truth comes out. Pegasus is an attempt to crush the democracy. Through Pegasus the idea of India is being attacked,” Gandhi told reporters after the court ruling.
“Only prime minister and home minister can order the use of Pegasus. The Pegasus can be acquired by the government,” he said. “We would like to know why the prime minister is using the snooping weapon against its own people.”
Some of those who petitioned the Supreme Court for the Pegasus inquiry, expressed relief over the ruling.
“It came as a big relief for me and others who want the accountability fixed in the whole affair,” Rupesh Kumar Singh, a journalist in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, told Arab News.
“The apex court’s order for investigation gives us a hope that in democracy personal freedom cannot be tampered with so easily.”
Others, however, said they would wait and see until the report is published.
“At one level I am happy that it’s not the government-appointed committee, but the supreme court-appointed committee, at another level it’s an early day to predict an outcome,” Delhi-based political commentator and writer Paranjoy Guha Thakurta said. “The main issue, in my opinion which needs to be addressed is that if the government bought the software or not, we don’t know yet.”