The Supreme Court Thursday said it is constituting a committee of technical experts to look into allegations of unauthorised surveillance using the Pegasus software developed by Israeli firm NSO Group, and that an order in this regard might be out by next week.
The observation by Chief Justice of India N V Ramana is significant given that the Centre had earlier submitted that it would set up an expert panel on its own to look into the allegations that phones of several people had been hacked into using the spyware, and had urged the court to allow this.
A three-judge Bench headed by the CJI had on September 13 reserved its order on a batch of petitions seeking a probe in the matter. On Thursday, CJI Ramana said the order was taking time as some of the experts who the court had in mind to be part of the committee had declined to take the role citing personal difficulties.
“We will be able to finalise the members of the technical expert committee by next week and pronounce orders,” the CJI told Senior Advocate C U Singh, one of the lawyers representing the petitioners.
The Centre has “unequivocally” denied all allegations regarding illegal surveillance. In a brief affidavit on August 15, it had told the Supreme Court that, nevertheless, “with a view to dispel any wrong narrative spread by certain vested interests and with an object of examining the issues raised”, it would set up “a Committee of Experts in the field which will go into all aspects of the issue”.
The petitioners however had pointed out that the Centre’s affidavit did not disclose whether it had purchased or used Pegasus or not.
Following this, the Court had sought to know if the government planned to file any additional affidavit. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta appearing for the Centre had then told the Bench that the issue was fraught with “questions of national security”, and hence it did not want to put details in a public affidavit to be filed in court and make it a matter of public debate. It had, however, offered to have the issue examined by a committee of domain experts, who would submit their report to the Court. The Solicitor General had requested the Court to allow it to set up such a panel, but this was objected to by the petitioners.
The Supreme Court order is significant given that the government had urged it to let it form a committee of domain experts and, citing national security, said it would submit an affidavit on the matter to it. Neither has it clarified so far if Pegasus software was bought or used by it.
Reserving its order, the Supreme Court had said: “We are… not interested in any manner or in any way to know the issues which are concerned about security or defence or any other national interest issue. We are only concerned, in the face of allegations that some software was used against some particular citizens, journalists, lawyers etc, to know whether this software has been used by the government, by any method other than permissible under the law.”
The Pegasus controversy had broken following media reports of alleged illegal use of the software to tap the phones of some activists, journalists and politicians. Subsequently, several petitions were filed in the Supreme Court seeking an inquiry into the charges.