Pegasus: Public interest plea moved in Supreme Court
A public interest plea has been moved in the Supreme Court seeking a court-monitored special investigation team probe into alleged government snooping on Indian citizens through the Israeli spyware Pegasus, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the CBI named as respondents.
An advocate, Manohar Lal Sharma, moved the petition on Thursday pleading that not only was the alleged surveillance a violation of citizens’ fundamental right to privacy, but the use of foreign spyware to snoop on Indians posed a threat to national security.
“Privacy is not about the wish to hide, as is often asserted. It is about having a space of one’s own where our thoughts and being are not the instrument of someone else’s purposes. It is an essential component of dignity and agency,” the petition says.
“Pegasus is a chilling software. It is not just eavesdropping on conversations; it can be used to access the entire digital imprint of your life. It renders helpless not just the owner of the phone hacked but everyone who is in contact with them.”
Sharma has argued that the alleged use of Pegasus for spying on Indians violates Articles 266(3), 267(2) and 283(2) of the Constitution, according to which the government cannot appropriate the country’s consolidated or contingency funds without legislative approval.
This implies that if the apex court admits the petition, the purported source of funds for the alleged purchase of the spyware may come under the scanner.
Sharma has also argued that any snooping on citizens’ personal data violates Sections 65, 66 and 72 of the Information Technology Act — which deal with data privacy and misuse — read with Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act.
His petition asks whether the Constitution allows a Prime Minister and his ministers to snoop on Indian citizens for their “vested political interest”.
It seeks the prosecution of those responsible under the IT Act and Official Secrets Act as well as Indian Penal Code Sections 408, 409 (criminal breach of trust by public servants) and 120B (criminal conspiracy).
Sharma says he was compelled to petition the Supreme Court because his representation to the CBI for the registration of an FIR against the officials concerned had brought no response.
His petition says the national security implications of the alleged spying are enormous at a time the explosive growth of surveillance technology vendors has become a global security and human rights problem.
It says Pegasus is not just a surveillance tool but a “cyber-weapon being unleashed on the Indian polity”.
“Even if authorised (which is doubtful), the use of Pegasus poses a national security risk,” it adds.
Sharma has said the cause of action had arisen as far back as November 28, 2019, when Modi and his ministers had failed to reply in the Lok Sabha to Congress members Digvijaya Singh and Jairam Ramesh who had asked whether the government had bought the Pegasus software.
Sharma says a “fresh cause of action arose” on July 20 this year when, in the Rajya Sabha, the IT minister failed to reply to Opposition members’ questions about the purchase of Pegasus and its use “in India against the Opposition leaders, human right(s) activist(s) and political rivals” before and after the 2019 general election.
“It’s an amount of admission, serious violation of Art(icles) 21 (life and liberty including privacy), 266(3), 267(2) and 283(2) of the Constitution of India read with serious financial and personal injury to the citizens of India,” the petition says.
“The Pegasus scandal is a matter of grave concern and a serious attack upon Indian democracy, judiciary and (the) country’s security. The widespread and unaccountable use of surveillance is morally disfiguring.”