New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday set up an independent expert panel of three, headed by its former judge R V Raveendran (72), to oversee the probe into snooping of mobiles with Israeli Pegasus spying software.
The panel has been further tasked to recommend an enactment or amendment to existing law and procedures to secure right to privacy and prevent any intrusion, except in accordance with law, by state and non-state entities. It will also suggest steps to beef up cyber security.
The panel has been also asked to suggest a mechanism to address citizens’ suspicions of illegal surveillance of their devices. The committee will also look into setting up of an independent premier agency to probe instances of cyberattacks and recommend what interim steps need to be taken by the court to protect the citizen's rights, pending filling up of the lacunae by Parliament.
The two other members of the panel are Alok Joshi, a former head of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India's external intelligence agency, and an IPS officer of 1976 batch, Dr Sundeep Oberoi; the latter is chairman of the sub-committee of International Organisation of Standardisation as also International Electro-technical commission and Joint Technical Committee.
Giving the panel the latitude to opt for any experts, the court named a 3-member technical committee to assist the panel. It will comprise Dr Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, professor cyber security and digital forensics and dean of the Gandhinagar-based National Forensic Sciences University; Dr Prabhakaran P, professor of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Anritapuri, Kerala; and Dr Ashwin Anil Gumaste, associate professor in IIT Bombay.
In a 46-page judgment, a Bench headed by Justice N V Ramana and comprising Justices Surya Kant and Miss Hima Kohli berated the Modi government for raising the argument of national security to defend its case. The court underscored that this cannot be an omnibus argument to gain a free pass every time the court exercises judicial review. It said the Centre should have justified its stand instead of rendering the court a mute spectator with vague submissions.
The verdict came on a dozen petitions, including those filed by the Editors Guild of India, N Ram of The Hindu, Delhi lawyer Manohar Lal Sharma, Jagdeep Chhokar, former professor of IIM, Ahmedabad and co-founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).
The court slammed the Centre for filing a limited affidavit that did not give clarity on the issue; its vague denial was not sufficient. It said: "We gave ample opportunity to govt to give details of all actions taken by it." It said admittedly agencies use surveillance to fight terror and need may arise to intrude into privacy, but the use of technology must follow a constitutional process.
Listing the matter after eight weeks, the Bench directed the panel to prepare the report after a thorough inquiry and place it before the court, expeditiously.
The court order said the Bench chose renowned experts to be a part of the technical committee, rather than relying upon government agencies. It said: "Some of the candidates, selected independently, politely declined while others had some conflict of interest." It noted that it declined the Centre's offer to appoint an expert committee because of "allegations that the Union or State governments are party to the rights' deprivation of the citizens."
The panel has been empowered to devise its own procedure, hold investigation as it deems fit and take statements of any person in connection with the inquiry and call for the records of any authority or individual.
Stressing that the court's effort is "to uphold the constitutional aspirations and rule of law, without allowing ourselves to be consumed in the political rhetoric," the court summed up the batch of petitions before it raising "an Orwellian concern, about the alleged possibility of utilizing modern technology to hear what you hear, see what you see and to know what you do. "