Govt didn't cooperate with probe, malware may not be Pegasus: SC panel report

The three-member panel, headed by retired Justice RV Raveendran, submitted its report on snooping allegations using Pegasus, but said that the probe was inconclusive.
The Supreme Court of India
The Supreme Court of India
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The technical committee that was looking into allegations that the Government of India used the Israeli spyware called Pegasus to spy on Indian citizens has now submitted its report to the Supreme Court, and has said that the Union government did not cooperate with its probe. The technical committee was headed by Justice Raveendran and submitted its report in the SC on Thursday, August 25, and the report says their probe has been inconclusive on whether the Union government has used Pegasus. The Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice NV Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli took on record the sealed cover which contained the committee’s report.

The three-member expert committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge RV Raveendran was formed in October 2021 to look into allegations of the Union government installing the Pegasus spyware on the devices of its critics, including journalists, activists, politicians and civil society members. The committee on Thursday submitted its report in three parts, containing information about malware, material from private mobile phones which may contain confidential information, and public research material. The Supreme Court bench noted that out of the 29 devices submitted, the committee found that five contained malware, LiveLaw reported. However, it said there is no conclusive evidence that the malware was Pegasus. The bench also said that the third part of the committee’s report, written by Justice RV Raveendran, will be made available on the Supreme Court’s website; however, the committee has asked that the other two parts are not made public. The individuals who submitted their phones to the committee had requested not to make the report public, the bench said.

The Supreme Court had set up the committee to probe the Pegasus snooping allegations to look into seven broad issues. The members of the committee include experts in cyber security, digital forensics, networks and hardware. The committee was also authorised to make recommendations regarding enactment or amendment to existing law and procedures surrounding surveillance, and for securing an improved right to privacy; establishment of a mechanism for citizens to raise grievances on suspicion of illegal surveillance of their devices; any ad-hoc arrangement that may be made by the Court as an interim measure for the protection of citizen’s rights, among others.

The order setting up the committee came while considering a batch of petitions, including ones filed by senior journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar along with the Editors Guild of India, seeking an independent probe into the allegations of snooping by government agencies on eminent citizens, politicians and scribes by using Israeli firm NSO's spyware Pegasus. An international media consortium had reported that over 300 verified Indian mobile phone numbers were on the list of potential targets for surveillance using Pegasus spyware.

Pegasus is an Israeli spyware with 'write' capacity — that is, not only can it be used to spy on targets, it can also introduce texts and files on target devices, and therefore it can essentially be used to 'plant evidence' against any target. The biggest criticism of Pegasus is that it's a military grade spyware that's allegedly being used to spy on citizens of the country and civilians, not military targets. In an interview on TNM's Here's The Thing newsletter, cyber security researcher Anand V said, "A normal spying device you get in the market costs about USD 50. Pegasus is a million dollar device. So in computer security, this is the equivalent of someone using a 500 pound bomb on a civilian target. In terms of abuse and misuse and coming into your personal space, it is as bad as putting a time bomb on a normal civilian who has nothing. And that's basically what is concerning, because states are not supposed to do this."

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