Pegasus panel gives report back to Supreme Court

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A three-member panel that was asked to probe whether Israeli spyware Pegasus was wont to allegedly infiltrate the phones of several politicians, journalists, and activists in India, has submitted its report back to the Supreme Court nearly every week ago.

The contents of the report remain confidential. The Supreme Court is yet to line a next date of hearing for the case during whose proceedings the panel was formed under the supervision of retired Supreme Court judge justice RV Raveendran. The case could also be listed on August 12 before a bench comprising judge of India NV Ramana and justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli. HT reached dead set Raveendran for comments on Monday but didn't immediately get a response.

The panel comprises of Dr Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, dean of the National Forensic Sciences University in Gandhinagar, Dr Prabaharan P, professor at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Kerala, and Dr Ashwin Anil Gumaste, an institute chair prof at IIT Bombay. The panel examined 29 devices by May for forensic analysis. “The matter is confidential and can't be discussed as a selected procedure needs to be followed,” a member of the panel said at the time.

Earlier, the Supreme Court had asked the panel to expedite its investigation into the Pegasus row with the primary deadline set for May 20, and so extending time till June 20 for submission of the ultimate report. The report was finally submitted around per week ago after multiple delays.

The Pegasus row erupted on July 18, 2021 after a global consortium of media outlets and investigative journalists reported that the phones of Indian ministers, politicians, activists, businessmen and journalists were among the 50,000 that were potentially targeted by Pegasus, Israeli company NSO Group’s phone-hacking software. Four HT journalists were also named within the report.

According to the consortium, Pegasus can turn on a target’s phone camera and microphone, and access the info on the device.

Speaking in Parliament on July 19, 2021, Union minister Ashwini Vaishnaw countered reports suggesting that the India government used Pegasus to hack into the phones of journalists, activists, Opposition leaders, and ministers. The reports were nothing but an “attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions”, he said.

Solicitor general Tushar Mehta appeared for the Union government while senior counsel Kapil Sibal, Shyam Divan, CU Singh and Rakesh Dwivedi, among others, were appearing for the bunch of petitions filed by lawyers, politicians, journalists and civil rights activists. the govt denied the allegations.

In October 2021 — while hearing the Pegasus case -- when the highest court founded the inquiry panel, it held that the Union government cannot get “a free pass every time” by raising the spectre of “national security” when the problems concern the “potential chilling effect” on right to privacy and freedom of speech.

It appointed the three-member panel, under the supervision of justice R V Raveendran. The committee, and a technical subcommittee, is finishing up a digital forensics analysis of devices suspected to own been targeted by the military grade spyware.