The Centre must come clean, the matter concerns citizens’ right to privacy
The Supreme Court has done well to try and push the Centre to disclose whether the Pegasus software was used to spy on individuals, as has been alleged. It has appeared unimpressed with solicitor general Tushar Mehta’s contention that information on whether the Israeli spyware has been used or not should not be made public as that would not be in the “larger national interest” and the bench, comprising Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, is right in pressing for a detailed affidavit.
Despite the court’s insistence, the Centre remains reluctant to come clean on the grounds it would not be in interests of the country and could affect national security. On the contrary, it is in the interests of citizens who are entitled to know whether the government has used the Pegasus software to obtain information and whether it is doing so in accordance with the law. It is a matter of individual privacy.
As we know, the French and Israeli governments ordered an investigation immediately after the snooping was unearthed by a global consortium of 19 media organisations on July 18. In India’s case, an independent investigation may throw up some clues, but the government must be a participant and clarify whether it has played a role in this episode.
The point is alleged invasions of privacy—the phones believed to have been tapped belong to politicians, activists, journalists and lawyers—are not to be taken lightly; if indeed the government is in the clear, why are only some ministers putting out innocuous statements rather than the home minister giving us a proper reply in Parliament? Indeed, the government’s unwillingness to engage with lawmakers is discomfiting.
It is adding to the unease created by the increasing use of technology to track and monitor information on citizens. If it is in fact true—as the government claims—that there has been no ‘unauthorised interception”, all it needs to do is to furnish a complete report. It needs to go on the record to state whether or not it has purchased the spyware which is typically sold only to ‘vetted governments’.
In fact, in an earlier instance (2019), NSO’s software was allegedly used by the government through the WhatsApp messaging system to unlawfully monitor the accounts of more than 100 citizens. Unfortunately, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT, headed by Shashi Tharoor, failed to make any headway on the matter. That was a lost opportunity, and the Opposition leaders should have worked to come up with some relevant information.
In fact, a meeting scheduled for July 28, to deliberate on “citizen’s data security and privacy” turned out to be a complete washout with officials from the ministry of home affairs, MEITY and DoT absenting themselves for various reasons. This kind of disregard for a Parliamentary panel meeting suggests the government is not interested in discussing the subject with Opposition leaders.
The SC has been restrained and accommodating while calling a spade a spade. Justice Ramana said, in no uncertain terms, that the SG is beating around the bush and has given the government time for a ‘rethink’ as it writes its interim order. The Pegasus episode has left us all more than worried about our rights to privacy, and it is important for India’s citizens the SC takes a tough stand. The judiciary is now our best hope.