The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a petition filed by senior journalists N. Ram and Sashi Kumar next week for an independent probe on the mass surveillance of more than 142 potential “targets” using the military-grade Israeli spyware Pegasus. The petitioners sought a probe headed by a former or a sitting judge. The snoop list includes journalists, lawyers, ministers, Opposition politicians, constitutional functionaries and civil society activists. The petition was mentioned by senior advocate Kapil Sibal before a Bench headed by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana. He submitted that the petition ought to be heard urgently as it concerned issues affecting the fundamental rights and civil liberties of citizens and even national security, and was making waves not only in India but also globally. The CJI said it will be listed “sometime next week.” The petition highlighted that “such mass surveillance using a military-grade spyware abridges several fundamental rights and appears to represent an attempt to infiltrate, attack and destabilise independent institutions that act as critical pillars of our democratic set-up.” It sought a full disclosure from the government on whether it had authorised the snooping which, the petition said, seemed to be an attempt to muzzle free speech and expression of dissent.
The government had still not given a straight answer to whether the hacking was done with its blessings, the petition said. Parliament has been held up for a week with the Opposition seeking a discussion on Pegasus and other issues. “Respondents [Ministries of Home, Information Technology and Communications] have not categorically ruled out obtaining Pegasus licences to conduct surveillance in their response, and have taken no steps to ensure a credible and independent investigation into these extremely serious allegations,” the petition said. “Surveillance/interception is justified only in cases of public emergency or in the interests of public safety… the hack/interception/decryption occasioned by the Pegasus spyware constitutes a criminal offence,” it highlighted. The legal regime for surveillance under Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act had been completely bypassed, the petition said. The spying, lack of disclosures from the government and the Supreme Court agreeing to hear the petition makes it the top story of the day.