The Supreme Court today heard a clutch of petitions on the Pegasus snooping scandal. An investigative journalistic project spanning across 17 media organisations across the world has revealed that a spyware made by Israeli company NSO Group is being used to allegedly snoop on activists, lawyers, journalists, politicians, business executives and more.
In India, the names of Union Ministers Ashwani Vaishnav and Prahald Patel; and opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, political strategist Prashant Kishor and more than 100 others have come to light as potential targets of the Pegasus spyware. A group of journalists and activists had filed petitions before the Supreme Court and those petitions were heard today.
The court termed the allegations as "serious" if the news reports were true. The court asked the petitioners why a police case alleging unlawful interception was not filed.
Meanwhile, the lawyers for the petitioners argued that this was a case of mass surveillance and there were no remedies under law for violation of right to privacy, especially as the actors behind the alleged hack are not known. The court stopped short of issuing notices to the central government. It has asked the petitioners to share their pleas with the government and has set August 10 as the next date to hearing.
To discuss this in detail, CNBC-TV18 spoke to Senior Supreme Court advocates Anand Grover and Sanjay Hegde, as well as Nikhil Pahwa, founder of Meidanama.
According to Senior Supreme Court advocate Anand Grover, the court was rightly cautious because they want to make sure that things are in order when they actually issue an order. He said there were different petitioners like Mr. Sharma whose petition was entirely based on newspaper reports, whereas the other petitions by Editors Guild and former Hindu editor N Ram, etc. were not based entirely on newspapers. But the court wanted to know why they had not moved earlier, because the privacy scandal came to light much earlier, nearly two years ago. According to Grove, the answers for that were not coming forth, as they should have and going forward hopefully, the lawyers will be better prepared on August 10.
“I think, there are fundamental questions involved in these petitions because obviously, the investigation carried on internationally by diverse media organisation shows that Pegasus has been used to snoop on not terrorists, but ordinary people, activists, journalists, politicians, etc,” said Grover, adding that now the only question here is whether the government did it on its own, or it was done by another agency.
While advocate Hedge said the news reports comments were primarily aimed at Mr Sharma, who had filed the first petition and who tried to argue the matter himself right in the beginning. But probably the chief justice was telling him that his petition was based entirely on news reports and that there were petitions from host of lawyers - Mr. Sibal, Mr. Datar - in each of those individual petitions, so probably the chief was just trying to hear everyone out, Hedge said.
“What I find significant is that they that these petitions, while there has been no formal notice, the court is cautiously feeling its way into the controversy. It would have been strange if the court had said that look, we are not going to entertain this. Equally. To get to the stage where you order an inquiry you would have to listen to the other side, you would have to give them an opportunity to meet the petitioners case. So before they take anything further, they want to hear both sides and then come towards tentative view on what is the best way to proceed further,” said Hegde.
When asked if it is a constitutional issue or it is merely a criminal issue, Grover said, “It is not merely a criminal issue, it is a constitutional democratic issue. Ordinarily, if a person has committed a criminal act against me, I should launch an FIR and the FIR is registered and then approach the High Court, etc, or magistrates court to proceed further.”
For the full interview, watch video