By Anil Sharma
India’s Supreme Court decision to investigate the allegations of “unlawful” and “unauthorized” surveillance of its citizens using Israeli spyware has Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government under fire.
According to the court order, it’s alleged that the Pegasus spyware—created by Israeli technology firm NSO Group—was used to hack hundreds of phones in India, including those owned by ministers, opposition leaders, journalists, activists, and Supreme Court judges, among others.
Pegasus is a powerful piece of spyware that secretly unlocks mobile phones and allows access to everything on them, including cameras and microphones, the court order states. According to NSO, its technology is sold solely “to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments for the sole purpose of saving lives through preventing crime and terror acts.”
In a late-October ruling, the Supreme Court of India has ordered the establishment of a three-member technical committee to investigate whether the government used the software to spy on opponents. The members of the committee are experts in cyber security, digital forensics, networks, and hardware. They’ll be overseen by Justice R.V. Raveendran, a former judge of the court.
The committee’s findings will be heard by the court after eight weeks.
The Supreme Court’s move comes at a time when the Modi government has already been battling to improve its sagging popularity after the second wave of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus hit the country between April and June. Modi’s popularity has dropped from 66 percent to 24 percent in one year, according to findings by India Today’s “Mood of the Nation” survey released in August.
Many in India feel that the Pegasus spyware infringes on privacy and freedom of speech, which is a constitutional right.
The court’s ruling has also given ammunition to opposition parties to attack the Modi government, which hasn’t yet provided meaningful replies to questions raised by opposition leaders. The Indian National Congress party’s leader, Rahul Gandhi, has been very vocal in demanding a probe into the spyware’s use in India.
“As we all know, Pegasus cannot be bought by a private individual. It has to be bought by a government; it is a weapon, so our first question was who authorized Pegasus?” Gandhi said during a recent press conference.
The leader of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Subramanian Swamy, raised similar questions in a July Twitter post.
“It is quite clear that Pegasus Spyware is a commercial company which works on paid contracts. So the inevitable question arises on who paid them for the Indian ‘operation’?” he wrote. “If it is not the government of India, then who?
“It is the Modi government’s duty to tell the people of India.”
In prior statements, NSO has stated that it doesn’t operate Pegasus and that the software isn’t a mass surveillance tool.
“NSO will thoroughly investigate any credible proof of misuse of its technologies, as we always had, and will shut down the system where necessary,” the company stated.
Thus far, the Indian government appears to have been more or less silent—or has tried to divert attention from the issue. The ruling BJP has been counterattacking opposition parties by asking them to file police complaints and get their phones checked.
On Nov. 9, AP reported that Mexican prosecutors had arrested a businessman on allegations that he had used the Pegasus program to spy on a journalist.