“This Court has always been conscious of not entering the political thicket. However, at the same time, it has never cowered from protecting all from the abuses of fundamental rights.”
Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of NV Ramana, CJ and Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, JJ has appointed an Expert Committee to look into the truth or falsity of the allegations in the Pegasus Spyware case, “taking into account the public importance and the alleged scope and nature of the large-scale violation of the fundamental rights of the citizens of the country.”
The Pegasus suite of spywares, being produced by an Israeli Technology firm, viz., the NSO Group, can allegedly be used to compromise the digital devices of an individual through zero click vulnerabilities, i.e., without requiring any action on the part of the target of the software. Once the software infiltrates an individual’s device, it allegedly has the capacity to access the entire stored data on the device, and has real time access to emails, texts, phone calls, as well as the camera and sound recording capabilities of the device. Once the device is infiltrated using Pegasus, the entire control over the device is allegedly handed over to the Pegasus user who can then remotely control all the functionalities of the device and switch different features on or off.
The NSO Group purportedly sells this extremely powerful software only to certain undisclosed Governments and the end user of its products are “exclusively government intelligence and law enforcement agencies” as per its own website. Reports indicate that individuals from nearly 45 countries are suspected to have been affected.
On 18th July 2021, a consortium of nearly journalistic organizations from around the world, including one Indian organization, released the results of a long investigative effort indicating the alleged use of the Pegasus software on several private individuals. This investigative effort was based on a list of some 50,000 leaked numbers which were allegedly under surveillance by clients of the NSO Group through the Pegasus software. Initially, it was discovered that nearly 300 of these numbers belonged to Indians, many of whom are senior journalists, doctors, political persons, and even some Court staff. At the time of filing of the Writ Petitions, nearly 10 Indians’ devices were allegedly forensically analyzed to confirm the presence of the Pegasus software.
Union of India’s Stand
Union of India, through the Minister of Railways, Communications and Electronics and Information Technology, took the stand in Parliament on 18th July 2021, when asked about the alleged cyberattack and spyware use, that the reports published had no factual basis. The Minister also stated that the Amnesty report itself indicated that the mere mention of a particular number in the list did not confirm whether the same was infected by Pegasus or not. Further, the Minister stated that NSO had itself factually contradicted many of the claims made in the Amnesty report. Finally, he stated that the Indian statutory and legal regime relating to surveillance and interception of communication is extremely rigorous, and no illegal surveillance could take place.
Supreme Court’s decision to interfere
Material on record
While the Supreme Court was initially reluctant in interfering in the matter due to lack of material placed before it, it eventually decided to step in after the subsequently filed petitions, as well as additional documents filed by others, brought on record certain materials that could not be brushed aside, such as the reports of reputed organizations like Citizen Lab and affidavits of experts.
Additionally, the sheer volume of cross-referenced and crossverified reports from various reputable news organizations across the world along with the reactions of foreign governments and legal institutions also moved us to consider that this is a case where the jurisdiction of the Court may be exercised.
“Of course, the learned Solicitor General suggested that many of these reports are motivated and self-serving. However, such an omnibus oral allegation is not sufficient to desist from interference.”
National Security vis-à-vis Citizen’s Right to Privacy
Union of India was asked to clarify its stand regarding the allegations raised, and to provide information to assist the Court regarding the various actions taken by it over the past two years, since the first disclosed alleged Pegasus spyware attack. It was made clear to the Solicitor General on many occasions that it would not push the Union of India to provide any information that may affect the national security concerns of the country.
However, despite the repeated assurances and opportunities given, ultimately the Union of India has placed on record what they call 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.
“If the Respondent¬Union of India had made their stand clear it would have been a different situation, and the burden on us would have been different. Such a course of action taken by the Respondent¬Union of India, especially in proceedings of the present nature which touches upon the fundamental rights of the citizens of the country, cannot be accepted.”
Union of India has justified its non¬submission of a detailed counter affidavit by citing security concerns. However,
“It is a settled position of law that in matters pertaining to national security, the scope of judicial review is limited. However, 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 upon the domain of national security, no omnibus prohibition can be called for against judicial review.”
Of course, the Union of India may decline to provide information when constitutional considerations exist, such as those pertaining to the security of the State, or when there is a specific immunity under a specific statute. However, it is incumbent on the State to not only specifically plead such constitutional concern or statutory immunity but they must also prove and justify the same in Court on affidavit. The Union of India must necessarily plead and prove the facts which indicate that the information sought must be kept secret as their divulgence would affect national security concerns. They 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.”
[Manohar Lal Sharma v. Union of India, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 985, decided on 27.10.2021]
For petitioners: Senior Advocates Kapil Sibal, Shyam Divan, Rakesh Dwivedi, Dinesh Dwivedi, Meenakshi Arora, Colin Gonsalves, ML Sharma
For Union of India: Solicitor General Tushar Mehta