The judges also said they would examine the Centre's proposal to set up an expert technical committee to look into all aspects of the matter and fixed the case for further hearing after 10 days.
Even as the government maintained that it has “nothing to hide” in the Pegasus snooping row, the Supreme Court on Tuesday said it would not like to compromise with the security of the nation but wanted a competent authority to apprise it of the charges related to the illegal hacking of phones of politicians, activists, journalists and court staff through the Israeli spyware.
A Bench led by Chief Justice NV Ramana, while issuing a formal notice to the Centre on the batch of petitions on the Pegasus snooping row, said it had no intentions to have the government divulge any sensitive information concerning national security. However, it may seek information on whether all “interceptions” that took place happened in the manner specified under the law.
“We do not want to compromise with the security of this country or defence of the nation. Here the issue is different, there are people alleging hacking of their phones. In the case of civilians also rules permit interception, but only on permission by the competent authority. What is the problem if that competent authority files an affidavit before us? We don’t want you to say anything related to national security, but the phones of individuals were attacked as per their claims. Only a competent authority can respond on that,” the CJI asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.
The judges also said they would examine the Centre’s proposal to set up an expert technical committee to look into all aspects of the matter and fixed the case for further hearing after 10 days.
The top court agreed with Mehta that it will not ask to disclose sensitive information to the public, even though the SG submitted that several kinds of software are being used by the security and military agencies to check anti-national and terrorist activities. “No government will make public what software it is using to allow terror networks to modulate its systems and escape tracking,” he said.
Stating that the response filed on Monday sufficiently responded to the concerns raised by the petitions, the law officer contended that the Centre was ready to place all facts about surveillance before an expert technical committee that can give a report to the court.
“We have nothing to hide from the court. We will place everything before the court-mandated committee that will be set up. But it cannot be put out into public through affidavits. Tomorrow, web portals will say military resources were used illegally. Let us have a committee and we will place all information before it,” Mehta said, adding that “it is not my case that I don’t wish to divulge. (My) limited point is let me say that before a committee of experts”.
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal and others, appearing for various petitioners, said: “We don’t want them (government) to give any information as to the security of the State, but he (Mehta) must reply if Pegasus as a technology was used.”
The SC was hearing as many as 10 petitions, including one filed by the Editors Guild of India, seeking an independent probe into the alleged snooping by government agencies on eminent citizens, politicians and scribes by using Israeli cyber-intelligence firm NSO’s spyware Pegasus. Other petitioners also include politicians such as Rajya Sabha Member John Brittas, social activist Jagdeep Chhokar, apart from journalists such as N Ram, Sashi Kumar, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Rupesh Kumar Singh and others.
An international media consortium had reported that over 300 verified Indian mobile phone numbers were on the list of potential targets for surveillance using Pegasus spyware.