The Supreme Court Of India on Wednesday appointed a three-member committee to probe into the allegations of alleged use of Pegasus, a military grade spyware.
The verdict came on a batch of pleas that sought a court-monitored probe in the alleged use of Pegasus, military-grade spyware against a top court judge (since retired) and staff registry, members of the Opposition, journalists, civil rights activists, businessmen among others.
The bench rejected the the Centre's request to dismiss the plea and form its own committee. "It was an uphill task to choose independent members. We have selected this from data gathered personally," said Chief Justice of India NV Ramana.
The three-member court-appointed committee will be led by former Supreme Court judge RV Raveendran and will comprise former IPS officer Alok Joshi and Sundeep Oberoi, Chairman of sub committee (International Organisation of Standardisation/ International Electro-Technical Commission/Joint Technical Committee).
A technical committee comprising of Dr Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, Dean of National Forensic Sciences University Gujarat, Dr Prabaharan P, professor at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham and Dr Ashwin Gumaste, IIT-Bombay has also been appointed.
The Court noted that there had been no specific denial by Centre leaving the court with no option but to accept the submissions of petitioner prima facie and appoint an expert committee whose function will be overseen by the Supreme Court.
CJI Ramana said, "Such committees have been formed to probe the falsity and discover truth. Right to privacy violation needs to be examined. No clear stand by Union of India. There is also a serious concern of foreign agency involvement by surveilling Indians."
Noting that some of the petitioners are direct victims of snooping by the Pegasus software, CJI Raman said, "It is incumbent upon the Centre to seriously consider the use of such a technology.
"We live in the era of information. We must recognise that while technology is important, it is important to safeguard right to privacy of not only journalists but for all citizens," the three-judge bench said.
"There are restrictions on right to privacy but those restrictions have to stand constitutional scrutiny. In today's world, restriction on privacy is to prevent terrorism activity and can only be imposed when needed to protect national security," the Supreme Court noted.
Government Cannot Get Free Pass On The Anvil Of National Security
The Supreme Court pulled up the Centre for not filing an affidavit on the issue. The court said some of the pleas filed create allegations of inaction by the Union of India.
"The state cannot get free pass every time by raising national security concerns. No omnibus prohibition can be called against judicial review. Centre should have justified its stand here and not render the court a mute spectator," the bench said.
"We live in the era of information where everything is available on the cloud in the form of a digital dossier," the bench which also comprises of Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli said.
"Initially, this court had reservations but then various pleas were filed by people who claimed to be victims of alleged surveillance," CJI Ramana said. "The Centre filed a limited affidavit which doesn't share light on the fact. Had they done so, the burden on us would've been different," he said.
The Supreme Court said that the present petitions raise important issues regarding the use of technology and its alleged abuse. "Our aspiration is to uphold rule of law without getting into the political thicket," the bench said.
The Bench added that every citizen of India must be given protection on their right to privacy. Every invasion of privacy must pass the test of reasonableness and constitutional necessity. Such invasion can't be allowed without statutory legislation.
"Freedom of press can't be undermined by invasion of right to privacy. It will have chilling effect on right to freedom of speech. This court feels compelled to get to the root of the controversy raised," the bench added.
The court added that the terms of reference for the committee has been detailed in the order. The committee has been asked to thoroughly probe the issue. The matter will now be heard after eight weeks.
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