India’s top court has ordered an independent investigation into the government’s alleged use of the Israeli spyware Pegasus on journalists, opposition politicians and activists.
The Supreme Court of India on Wednesday appointed an independent committee for the probe into allegations that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government used the military-grade spyware to snoop on sitting members of parliament, judges, journalists, and activists. The court has given the committee eight weeks for the task.
The order followed multiple petitions that sought action over the illegal surveillance. Chief Justice N.V. Ramana said the matter amounts to “an Orwellian concern.” He added that the court had accepted the petitions because “there has been no specific denial” by the government.
The state cannot be given a “free pass every time the specter of national security is raised,” the court said.
India was one of 45 countries where thousands of phone numbers were targeted by the spyware, which was made by the Israeli firm NSO Group. More than 1,000 phone numbers in India were among nearly 50,000 ones selected worldwide as possibly of interest to the clients of the NSO. The list was leaked to major news outlets on July 18.
The revelations about the spyware have raised questions as to whether the Indian government was illegally snooping on its critics and in some cases even its own ministers. The Indian phone numbers put under surveillance reportedly included those of senior opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, journalists, activists, government critics and former judges.
An analysis of more than 20 Indian phones on the list showed that 10 had been targeted by Pegasus, seven successfully.
Phones infected with Pegasus, which is normally only sold to governments or security agencies, give the user access to the target’s messages and photos, and track their location.
Critics say the matter is part of a growing assault on dissent and civil liberties under the Hindu nationalist government of Modi. The Indian government would not deny or confirm the use of Pegasus because of national security.
Soon after the Pegasus reports emerged in July, India’s parliament was disrupted by opposition calls for an investigation. The main opposition Congress Party accused Modi of “treason” and compromising national security following the Pegasus revelations.
India’s arch-rival Pakistan also urged the United Nations to investigate whether India has spied on Prime Minister Imran Khan using the Israeli spyware.