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Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas files PIL in Supreme Court on Pegasus spyware, seeks probe: Report

Since the Pegasus Project exposé, demands for an independent investigation into the revelations have only grown as the issue might have major implications on the state of surveillance and privacy in the country. 

John Brittas, a Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), filed a public interest litigation (PIL)* in the Supreme Court of India over the Pegasus revelations on July 24, according to a Live Law report.

The PIL (a copy of which MediaNama has seen) prays for a probe into the Pegasus issue after it was revealed by news reports that Pegasus had been used to snoop on (or in some cases potentially target) journalists, activists, politicians, businessmen, constitutional functionaries, among others.

Pegasus is a military-grade spyware developed by an Israeli company called NSO Group which has clarified that it only sells the spyware to vetted governments and its agencies. A consortium of 17 news organisations led by Forbidden Stories investigated a leaked list containing 50,000 phone numbers that were said to be targets or potential targets of Pegasus spyware by clients of the NSO Group. 

Why does it matter? Pegasus’ deployment upon journalists, activists, political leaders, businessmen, scientists, among others, has sparked concerns about the sanctity of freedoms of speech and expression in a constitutional democracy, according to the Editors Guild of India. Moreover, the Indian government has not issued any categorical denial around the use of Pegasus by government agencies let alone order an investigation into the matter.   

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What does the PIL say? 

The writ petition has named the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, and Ministry of Communications as respondents in the case. 

Brittas, in his petition, has expressed concern over the manner in which the government has responded to news reports around Pegasus. The petition calls the statement which the IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw delivered in the Lok Sabha as “evasive”.

The petition also states that the issue is a violation of the right to privacy guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian constitution. 

“The statement neither denied nor admitted the snooping. The Government has placed undue reliance upon the company which owns the alleged spyware technology. The Government has not ordered any investigation into the incident.” — Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas’ petition stated. 

In an interview with the Economic Times, the Rajya Sabha MP said that the allegations would have a chilling effect on free speech and expression. “It seems that our money is being used to spy on us. All vital organs of democracy seem to have been targeted for snooping,” he added in the interview.

Brittas further claimed that the government has not cared to investigate the matter despite the serious nature of the allegations involved in the Pegasus affair.  He also claimed that allegations lead to two inferences— either snooping was done by the government or by a foreign agency. 

“If it was done by the government, then it was done in an unauthorised manner. If snooping was carried out by some foreign agency, then that is an act of external aggression and needs to be dealt with in a serious manner,” Brittas pointed out.

Pegasus PILs in the Supreme Court 

Brittas is neither the first nor the only person to approach the Supreme Court over the Pegasus revelations. There are two other petitions which have been filed in the apex court and another one by a Pegasus target could be filed soon. 

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  • Advocate Manohar Lal Sharma was the first in line to call for an SC-monitored SIT probe to investigate news reports of Pegasus being used on journalists, activists, and political leaders. He has flagged issues pertaining to the purchase and use of Pegasus spyware in his petition. 
  • News editors N Ram and Sashi Kumar filed a petition which requests the apex court to direct the central government to acknowledge whether the government or any of its agencies obtained a license for using Pegasus. The petition also demands a judicial enquiry into the matter headed by a sitting or a retired SC judge. 
  • Independent journalist Rupesh Kumar Singh is mulling a petition in the Supreme Court against the Centre for alleged breach of privacy. His phone number along with the numbers of his wife and wife’s sister feature on the leaked list of potential targets according to The Wire. Singh informed The Telegraph that he is already in talks with Colin Gonsalves, a senior Supreme Court advocate, regarding his petition. 

Other demands for an investigation into the Pegasus scandal 

The calls for an independent judicial investigation into the snooping have only become stronger since the news reports first emerged on July 18. Opposition parties, journalists, internet advocacy groups, and civil society groups have all raised the demand given the severity of the violations detailed in the reports.

  • Congress leader P Chidambaram tweeted that the only government that is unconcerned about Pegasus is the Indian government. He urged the government to either call for a joint parliamentary committee probe or request the Supreme Court to appoint a sitting judge to investigate the case, an NDTV report said. 

  • The chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology Shashi Tharoor in an interview with The Wire said that “the best thing would be to appoint a sitting Supreme Court judge to head an independent enquiry in the matter of the Pegasus exposé.” 

Meanwhile, the West Bengal government has already constituted a judicial panel headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Madan Bhimarao Lokur to probe the Pegasus spyware row after a report by The Wire said that the mobile phone of election strategist Prashant Kishor was hacked. Kishor was instrumental in engineering a win for the Trinamool Congress in state elections this year. The report also disclosed that West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee’s phone number was “selected as a potential snoop target”.

*Disclaimer: Nikhil Pahwa, the founding editor of MediaNama, has been asked to assist with the drafting of petitions related to the Pegasus spyware scandal. 

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