The Supreme Court on Wednesday appointed a committee of experts to inquire into the alleged use of Israeli spyware Pegasus for surveillance of Indian citizens. A bench comprising Chief Justice NV Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli said that every citizen needs protection against privacy violation and mere invocation of 'national security by State' does not render the court a 'mute spectator'.
Finding material that 'prima facie merits consideration', the bench declined the Centre's plea to appoint an expert panel on its own, saying such a course would violate the settled judicial principle against bias. The top court urged its former judge Justice RV Raveendran to oversee the functioning of the three-member panel and sought a report expeditiously from the committee.
Citing national security, the Centre had earlier refused to file a detailed affidavit in the matter. The top court's order came while hearing a batch of petitions related to reports of alleged snooping by government agencies on eminent citizens, politicians and scribes by using Israeli firm NSO's spyware Pegasus. Petitioners had urged the apex court to order an independent court-monitored probe into the case.
The court said that the panel will prepare its report expeditiously and posted the matter for hearing after eight weeks. The court also said that freedom of press is an “important pillar” of democracy as it said the court's task in the Pegasus matter assumes great significance with regard to the importance of protection of journalistic sources and the “potential chilling effect” that snooping techniques may have. In its 46-page order passed on a batch of pleas seeking independent probe into the alleged Pegasus snooping matter, the top court said protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for the freedom of press and without it sources may be deterred from assisting the media in informing the public on matters of public interest.
“Such a scenario might result in self-censorship. This is of particular concern when it relates to the freedom of the press, which is an important pillar of democracy. Such chilling effect on the freedom of speech is an assault on the vital public-watchdog role of the press, which may undermine the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information,” the bench said.
“Having regard to the importance of the protection of journalistic sources for press freedom in a democratic society and the potential chilling effect that snooping techniques may have, this court’s task in the present matter, where certain grave allegations of infringement of the rights of the citizens of the country have been raised, assumes great significance,” it said.
The bench took note of the vehement submissions of the Centre on national security and rejected it saying, "...this does not mean that the State gets a free pass every time the spectre of national security is raised. National security cannot be the bugbear that the judiciary shies away from, by virtue of its mere mentioning. Although this Court should be circumspect in encroaching the domain of national security, no omnibus prohibition can be called for against judicial review."
Pronouncing the verdict, the CJI said the Centre 'must justify the stand that they take before a Court. The mere invocation of national security by the State does not render the Court a mute spectator'.
Justice Raveendran will oversee the functioning of the panel of cyber security, digital forensics, networks and hardware and the three members are: Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, Prabaharan P and Ashwin Anil Gumaste. The apex court said that former IPS officers Alok Joshi and Sundeep Oberoi -- Chairman, Sub Committee in (International Organisation of Standardisation/International Electro-Technical Commission/Joint Technical Committee) -- will assist Justice Raveendran to oversee the task to the committee.
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 civilized democratic society have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Privacy is not the 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 procedure established by law under Constitution, it said.
The bench had reserved 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 probe 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.