The Supreme Court of India has ordered a panel of cybersecurity experts to investigate whether the far-right Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi has used the Israeli Pegasus spyware to monitor journalists and prominent political opponents. Headed by Chief Justice NV Ramana, the court's bench of three judges said in the order issued today that the possible violation of citizens' right to privacy and free speech compelled it to seek out the truth in the matter.
"The state cannot get a free pass every time by raising national security concerns," said the judges. "No omnibus prohibition can be called against judicial review." Chief Justice Ramana added that the court had accepted the petitions because "there has been no specific denial" by the government.
The court order comes follows petitions by activists, lawyers, politicians, and journalists after an international investigation published in July reported that 37 heads of state, reporters, human rights activists, and businessmen had been hacked by users of the spyware. The targets' phone numbers were on a database believed to be of interest to clients of Israeli firm NSO, which developed Pegasus.
According to the BBC, the list was leaked to major news outlets on 18 July. Indian news and opinion websites The Wire and the Indian Express newspaper were among the 16 international media outlets which investigated the leaked list and the use of Pegasus spyware around the world. The Washington Post said that an analysis of more than 20 Indian phones on the list showed that 10 had been targeted by Pegasus, seven of them successfully.
However, the NSO Group has denied any wrongdoing. It claims that the software was intended for tracking criminals and terrorists and was only sold to military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies from countries with good human rights records.
The group and its Pegasus spyware – capable of switching on a phone camera or microphone, and harvesting its data – have been in the headlines since 2016, when researchers accused it of helping spy on a dissident in the UAE. The UAE is not known for having a particularly good human rights record.
Meanwhile, Modi's government has "unequivocally" denied all allegations regarding illegal surveillance. Speaking in parliament, India's information technology Minister Ashwani Vaishnaw dismissed the allegations in July, calling them "highly sensational", "over the top" and "an attempt to malign Indian democracy."