"That is why it is taking time to constitute the technical expert committee," the CJI said, hoping that the SC will finalise the names of members of the technical committee soon.
The Supreme Court on Thursday said that it intends to set up a technical committee next week to probe the allegations of snooping on citizens, particularly opposition leaders, journalists, activists, etc, through Isreal’s Pegasus spyware.
While the SC’s move is perceived by some circles as indicative of its displeasure with the government’s refusal to file a detailed affidavit in the controversial matter, if the move could turn out to a setback to the government will be clear only when the composition of the panel, most likely to be headed by a judge, is known.
Legal experts feel that it is too early to “prejudge” whether the interim order for setting up a committee will go against the government’s stand to have its own expert panel. “It may be a wishful thinking. We don’t know who will be its members yet, the composition and the terms of reference. SC will not appoint a unilateral panel on the issue. It will have to have the government nominated members,” a lawyer closely associated with the matter said.
The court had, on September 13, reserved its order on interim directions to be issued on a batch of petitions for independent probe into use of the spyware, and given the government some time to re-think on the stand taken by it that no detailed affidavit could be filed in the controversial matter for national security reasons.
A bench led by Chief Justice NV Ramana told senior counsel CU Singh, who appeared for journalist N Ram, that it could not pass the order this week, as indicated earlier because some experts had expressed their inability to join the panel due to “personal reasons”.
“That is why it is taking time to constitute the technical expert committee,” the CJI said, hoping that the SC will finalise the names of members of the technical committee soon.
While the CJI said that it will pass the interim order sometime next week, he asked Singh, who was before the court in an unrelated matter on Thursday, to inform the other lawyers about its decision to appoint the panel in the case.
The government had said that use or non-use of a particular software can’t be debated in such a manner since it involved questions of national security and might alert a potential terrorist or terror organisations to develop counter measures.
However, the Centre had proposed to constitute an expert committee, comprising independent members, to examine the allegations. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had told the judges that the members would have “no relationship” with the government.
The petitioners had asked the apex court to constitute itself a committee of experts headed by a retired or a sitting judge of the Supreme Court to examine the matter. The Bench had told the government not to “beating around the bush” in the issue.
The SC is hearing as many as 11 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.