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India’s highest court weighs Pegasus phone snooping inquiry

Indian politics & policy updates

India’s Supreme Court will on Thursday hear journalists’ petitions for an independent, court-supervised investigation into allegations that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government misused spyware to surveil opposition politicians, journalists and officials.

Traces of NSO Group’s Pegasus software were found on the smartphones of Prashant Kishor, an opposition political strategist, and seven Indian journalists during a recent global investigation by a media consortium into the use of the Israeli-made surveillance tool.

The phone numbers of dozens of other prominent Indian public figures, including Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, other opposition politicians, a former election commissioner and officials, and a well-connected businessman, also appeared on a global list of 50,000 people who had allegedly been targeted for potential surveillance by NSO Group’s clients since 2016.

The allegations of widespread snooping on high-profile Indian citizens have unleashed a political storm that some commentators have compared to the 1970s Watergate scandal that cost Richard Nixon his job as US president.

Pegasus’s maker claims that it sells its military spyware only to “vetted governments” for national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement.

In the weeks since the revelations, Indian journalists and media organisations have filed a number of petitions appealing to the Supreme Court to set up an independent investigation to establish the truth — and determine who authorised any snooping.

It raises fundamental questions of the future of the democratic system

“It’s not just a matter of my privacy. It’s not just a question of my freedom of expression,” said one of the petitioners, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a veteran journalist whose phone was allegedly compromised by Pegasus. “It raises fundamental questions of the future of the democratic system — not only in India but across the world.”

The Editors Guild of India this week filed public litigation. It argued that the alleged use of Pegasus to spy on journalists raised “grave concerns of abuse of office, dismantling of separation of power, infringement of fundamental right to privacy, freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of the press, subversion of the democratic process, and commission of serious criminal offences”.

Modi’s government has refused to either confirm or deny whether it is using the Israeli software, although cabinet ministers have insisted that no illegal surveillance has taken place.

Government officials and members of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party have boycotted a hearing into the use of Pegasus by parliament’s standing committee on IT, which is led by Congress lawmaker Shashi Tharoor, in a move which in effect stalled that line of inquiry.

“It is clear what has occurred was a crime, but you have seen absolutely no attempts by the central government to investigate it,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia-Pacific policy director of Access Now, a global digital rights organisation. “They are seeking to use any tool they can to frustrate inquiries into the Pegasus Project revelations.”

Privacy activists and digital rights groups have become concerned by New Delhi’s surveillance of its citizens. In late 2019, WhatsApp notified two dozen Indian activists, scholars and politicians that their phones had been hacked by commercial Israeli spyware. The only entity New Delhi blamed was WhatsApp.

“Of all the democracies that we are tracking globally, we are most concerned by the surveillance impunity problem in India,” Chima said. “It’s happening on a massive scale, with even less pretence of conducting an independent inquiry or ensuring this does not happen again.”

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