New Delhi, Aug 5: Pegasus spyware cannot be used unless it is purchased by the government or its agencies and the Centre has to answer why they have not taken any action or lodged FIR in the matter of alleged snooping, the Supreme Court was told on Thursday.
A bench comprising Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justice Surya Kant was told by senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for veteran journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar, that it is a matter of privacy and dignity and the government should answer why they have kept quiet. The fact is that this technology cannot be used in India unless you have purchased it. This cannot happen. And who can purchase it is only the government and government agencies, he said.
The CJI shot back saying government could also mean state governments. The senior advocate said he didn't know about that and only the government will be able to inform the court on this issue.
We cannot give your lordships all the answers because we do not have all the answers. We cannot have access to these things. Therefore, it is imperative that the government come and tell your lordships what the state of affairs is and why they have not taken action, he said. Sibal told the bench, which was hearing a batch of petitions seeking independent probe into the alleged Pegasus snooping issue, that it is not just an internal matter but of our national security as well.
If the government said this was happening, why did they not take action against NSO Group Technology. Why did they not lodge an FIR. It is a matter of our security. It is a matter of our citizens' rights, he told the bench, adding, Why did the Government of India keep quiet?
When he referred to a recent report about an old number of a former member of judiciary also being there in the list, the bench said, Truth has to come out, we don't know whose names are there. Sibal said that there are questions that will have to be answered by the government. When the bench asked why the issue has cropped up now when the matter came into light in 2019 itself, Sibal said they came to know about it after reports were recently published.
He also said that the extent of surveillance was not known to them. Sibal said NSO, on its website, states its products are used by governments to tackle terror activities. Does it mean that the government is treating journalists, academicians, activists as terrorists because only the government can purchase such products, Sibal said, adding he has been told that it costs around 52,000 Dollars to penetrate into a mobile phone. At the fag end of hearing, advocate Manish Tewari told the bench that former finance minister Yashwant Sinha has also filed a petition in the matter but it has not been listed for hearing Thursday.
He urged the bench that Sinha's petition be tagged with the other pleas. The bench said the plea would be heard along with other petitions on the next date of hearing on August 10. Answering the court's query as to why the petitioners have not lodged FIRs if their phones were hacked, senior advocate Arvind Datar, appearing in the matter, said they do not know under which provision they can lodge a complaint. Datar said as per new rules under the IT Act, complaints can be lodged for sending obscene messages on particular devices and there is no express provision under which case can be lodged for snooping.
At the outset, the bench told advocate M L Sharma, who has also filed a petition in the matter, that except newspaper reports there was no other material in his plea. We are sorry to say but this is not the way of filing a PIL (public interest litigation). What is the material except newspaper cuttings, the bench said. The court also observed that Sharma had made a complaint to the CBI on the issue on July 21 and the very next day, he filed the petition in the apex court. The bench also took exception that he has arrayed an individual (prime minister) as respondent in the matter.
The problem is your petition. You have added some individuals also. I cannot issue notice straightaway.., the CJI told Sharma. The apex court asked the petitioners to serve the copies of the pleas to the Centre so that somebody from the government is present before it on August 10 to accept notice. Let them serve copies of the petition to the government. Somebody should appear for the government to take notice, the bench said. Let the matters be listed on Tuesday, August 10, 2021. In the meantime, Advocate-on-Record appearing for the petitioners are directed to serve copies of the writ petitions upon the Union of India well in advance, the bench said in its order.
An international media consortium has reported that over 300 verified Indian mobile phone numbers were on the list of potential targets for surveillance using Pegasus spyware. The top court was hearing nine petitions, including those filed by the Editors Guild of India and some senior journalists seeking independent probe into the alleged Pegasus snooping matter.
They are related to reports of alleged snooping by government agencies on eminent citizens, politicians and scribes by using Israeli firm NSO's spyware Pegasus.