Pegasus Row: Supreme Court Says Setting Up Probe Panel, Order Next Week

Pegasus Spyware Row: Earlier the Supreme Court reserved orders after the government said "it had nothing to hide" but cited "national security" to say it would not file an affidavit in response to the petitions

Pegasus Case: Pegasus is a spyware programme developed by Israeli company NSO Group (Representational)

New Delhi:

The Supreme Court will set up a committee, and appoint all the members, to inquire into the Pegasus snooping row, Chief Justice NV Ramana said Thursday morning, adding that interim orders would likely be issued next week. 

The Chief Justice was hearing another matter when he told one of the lawyers - who also represents one of the Pegasus petitioners - of this development.

"We wanted to pass an order on the matter before this week... but some members we thought of considering for the (expert) committee... for personal reasons they declined to be part of this committee. Hence the delay," he said.

"We will try to pass an order on Pegasus next week," he added.

The Chief Justice's remarks are significant given that the government, in the last hearing on September 13, offered to set up a committee to inquire into allegations of violation of privacy.

The government had said it would form the committee and that it would report to the Supreme Court. 

This was after strong remarks over the refusal to file a detailed affidavit, citing "national security".

"Filing (an affidavit) and making it (the question of whether the Indian government uses Pegasus) public discourse is not possible (as it) will affect national security... We cannot let terrorists know what software is used..." Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had initially told the court.

An unimpressed and irked Chief Justice reminded Mr Mehta "... we don't want to know about national security. The issue is... we have citizens saying their phones were tapped."

"Last time also... we clarified (won't) intervene in national security..." Justice Surya Kant, also on the bench, said then, "... claims of individual phones hacked. Which agency has powers... is it authorised?"

The court then pointed out that even if a committee were appointed, its report would normally - like the affidavit the government declined to file - also be a matter of public record.

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The Pegasus snooping allegations triggered protests from opposition leaders

Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for two petitioners, had said: "... don't want to hamper national security... (but) if Pegasus was used, ordinary citizens targeted, it is very serious."

Mr Sibal also asked why the government should be allowed to set up a committee of its own.

"We have to do something... Mr Mehta, beating about the bush will not solve the issue. Let us see what order we have to pass," the Chief Justice concluded, as the court reserved orders.

The top court has been hearing a clutch of petitions demanding an inquiry into allegations that an Indian client of the Israeli spyware used it for illegal surveillance of electronic devices.

The allegations were made via media reports from an international consortium that included The Wire from India and said devices of those critical of governments had been hacked.

The Wire claimed phone numbers of over 300 opposition leaders, journalists and others - including Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, Trinamool MP Abhishek Banerjee, poll strategist Prashant Kishor, and industrialist Anil Ambani - were on a list of potential targets.

The government has denied the allegations - in an earlier (limited) affidavit it dismissed them as being based on "conjectures... or unsubstantiated media reports..." - and turned down requests for an inquiry.

Shortly after the storm broke IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw told Parliament that "checks and balances" in India's judicial and executive systems precluded such illegal activities.

Disclaimer: The NSO group, which owns Pegasus, admits this is spyware and is used to hack phones, but says it does business only with governments and government agencies. The Israeli company says it does not corroborate the list of potential targets reported by media companies around the world.

Disclaimer: The Indian government has said there is "no substance" to the reports of Pegasus being used by it against opposition leaders, journalists and others. NDTV cannot independently verify the authenticity of the list of those who were supposedly targeted.