Apex court makes a Pegasus probe panel and also says that the government cant get a free pass every time by saying national security

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Adjudicating that the “state cannot get a free pass every time” by raising national security concerns, the Supreme Court today constituted a three-member technical committee to investigate the Pegasus snooping allegations. The committee comprising experts in cyber security, digital forensics, networks and hardware would be overseen by a supervisory panel led by former Supreme Court judge Justice R.V. Raveendran, said a three-judge bench led by the Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana. Justice Raveendran will be assisted in this task by Alok Joshi, former IPS officer (1976 batch) and Sundeep Oberoi, Chairman, Sub Committee in (International Organisation of Standardisation/International Electro-Technical Commission/Joint Technical Committee). The three technical members of the committee are Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, Professor (Cyber Security and Digital Forensics) and Dean, National Forensic Sciences University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat; Prabaharan P, Professor (School of Engineering), Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Amritapuri, Kerala; and Ashwin Anil Gumaste, Institute Chair Associate Professor (Computer Science and Engineering), Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, Maharashtra. Chief Justice NV Ramana began the judgment with a quote from George Orwell's 1984 -"If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself."

The top court said that in this world of conflicts it was an extremely uphill task to find and select experts who are free from prejudices, are independent and competent, rather than relying upon any government agencies or any private entity. "We make it clear that our effort is to uphold Constitutional aspirations and rule of law, without allowing ourselves to be consumed in political rhetoric," the bench said, adding that this court has always been conscious of not entering political thicket. "Members of a civilized democratic society have reasonable expectations of privacy. Privacy is not a singular concern of journalists or social activists," the bench said. In a democratic country governed by rule of law, indiscriminate spying on individuals cannot be allowed except with sufficient statutory safeguards, by following a procedure established by law under the Constitution, it said. The bench noted that while it was initially displeased with some of the petitions filed before it, which had only been based on news reports, there were also petitions filed before it by "direct victims" of Pegasus hacking. The bench criticised the response of the central government, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, which had termed reports about the use of Pegasus as motivated, and refused to clarify whether or not it had purchased and used the spyware.

However, despite the court giving the Centre ample opportunity to respond and provide it with information taken since 2019 when the first Pegasus revelations had come to light, it had only submitted a limited affidavit, "which does not shed any light on their stand or provide any clarity as to the facts of the matter at hand." The court acknowledged that the Centre "may decline to provide information when constitutional considerations exist, such as those pertaining to the security of the State." At the same time, it also held that this does not mean that the Centre can avoid a review of their actions by the court. On the selection of members for the committee, the bench, also comprising Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, said “it would be appropriate to state that in this world of conflicts, it was an extremely uphill task to find and select experts who are free from prejudices, are independent and competent. Rather than relying upon any Government agencies or any, we have constituted the Committee and shortlisted expert members based on biodata and information collected independently. Some of the candidates politely declined this assignment, while others had some conflict of interest. With our best intentions and efforts, we have shortlisted and chosen the most renowned experts available to be a part of the Committee''. The bench had reserved the order on September 13, saying it only wanted to know whether or not the Centre used the Pegasus spyware through illegal methods to allegedly snoop on citizens. The apex court was hearing a batch of pleas seeking an independent probe into the alleged Pegasus snooping matter. The pleas seeking independent probes are related to reports of alleged 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. Chief Justice Ramana finally construed and read out that every citizen has a “reasonable right to privacy, choices, liberties and freedom”. Technology is useful, but it cannot be used to take away freedoms or launch a cyberattack on privacy.