India’s Supreme Court Orders Pegasus Probe

India's Supreme Court has ordered an investigation to determine whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration used spyware to illegally surveil opposition leaders, journalists, activists, tycoons, and judges.

In July, India’s main opposition Congress Party accused Modi of “treason” after the cell phone numbers of several Indian journalists, activists, and an opposition election strategist were included in a data leak of numbers believed to be of interest to clients of the Israel-based NSO Group Ltd., maker of the Pegasus spyware

Lawyer Tushar Mehta, representing the government, said in earlier hearings that any software used by Modi's administration to "combat terrorism" could not be publicly named for security reasons. Mehta also denied that any illegal espionage had taken place. 

The Supreme Court accepted petitions to launch an independent investigation after the government offered “no specific denial” that it had used Pegasus software to spy on Indian citizens but instead offered to create an in-house committee to investigate the allegations. 

In the Supreme Court order, which was issued earlier today, Chief Justice N.V. Ramana said that the alleged use of Pegasus Software by the Indian government to surveil its citizens “raises an Orwellian concern,” and that the court was compelled to seek the truth in a matter in which citizens’ rights to privacy and free speech may have been violated. 

The order emphasized that while certain actions were permitted by the government on the grounds of national security, this argument was not a “free pass” that allowed any action to be taken.

The probe will be carried out by a panel that will be headed by a former Supreme Court judge and include experts in cybersecurity and criminal investigations. The panel has been given eight weeks to determine whether the government or its agencies acquired the Pegasus spyware and, if so, whether it was used to snoop on Indian citizens by listening to their conversations or accessing their private data. 

The panel has also been tasked with making recommendations on how suspicions of illegal surveillance should be handled and to suggest laws and procedures to better protect citizens’ right to privacy.

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