The Desk

The Pegasus Probe: Depositions Before the Technical Committee

Between Dec 10th 2021 and Feb 14th 2022, a. SC Technical Committee heard 13 depositions to investigate snooping allegations

Background

In August 2016, Ahmed Mansoor, an Emirati human rights activist, received suspicious links on his phone. He forwarded these links to Citizen Lab, a Toronto based laboratory that focuses on research, development in information and communication technology, and global security. Their investigation revealed a new, highly sophisticated spyware called ‘Pegasus’. The spyware, exclusively marketed to sovereign governments, is capable of completely controlling the targeted device—including accessing private data on any device without being detected.

On July 18th, 2021 the ‘Pegasus Project’, an initiative led by the Forbidden Stories consortium and Amnesty International, published a report alleging that over 50,000 phone numbers around the world were spied on with the Pegasus spyware. In India, The Wire published the Pegasus Project’s findings,naming Indian journalists, leaders of the Opposition, activists and judges who were targeted. Subsequently, between July 22nd 2021 and August 3rd 2021, the alleged targets of surveillance placed the matter before the Supreme Court and requested a probe into the Pegasus allegations. 

The petitioners argued that the use of Pegasus would have serious implications on democracy—emphasising that  the spyware violated the right to privacy. The Supreme Court sought a detailed affidavit from the Union responding to these allegations. The Union Government submitted a ‘limited affidavit’ that did not clarify whether Pegasus was used. The Union claimed that disclosing information on State surveillance would threaten national security. Unable to get clear answers, the Supreme Court appointed a Technical Committee to investigate the allegations.

The Technical Committee

On October 27th 2021, the Supreme Court delivered an Order appointing retired Justice R.V. Raveendran to supervise the Technical Committee. Mr. Alok Joshi, a former IPS officer, and Dr. Sundeep Oberoi, the Chairman of the International Organisation of Standardisation, were appointed to assist Justice Raveendran. 

Dr. Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, Professor (Cyber Security and Digital Forensics) and Dean, National Forensic Sciences University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat, Dr. Prabaharan P., Professor (School of Engineering), Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Amritapuri, Kerala and Dr. Ashwin Anil Gumaste, Institute Chair Associate Professor (Computer Science and Engineering), Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, Maharashtra, were appointed as members of the Committee as well.

The Technical Committee heard depositions from a total of 13 experts and petitioners in the case from December 10th 2021 to February 14th 2022. 

Initially, the Technical Committee was supposed to submit its report on May 20th 2022. However, a Bench comprising Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli granted an extension until June 20th, 2022. These depositions were made available on the https://pegasus-india-investigation.in/ website for public viewing. The SCO team has prepared a summary of the depositions which you can find below.

Deposition by Prof. Sandeep Shukla—December 10th, 2021

The Technical Committee invited Mr. Sandeep Shukla, a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Kanpur and co-petitioner in the Pegasus Probe case, to provide his expertise. He warned the Committee that Pegasus was too dangerous to be allowed as a tool for State surveillance and claimed that its use ‘strikes at the heart’ of the Right to privacy. He also pointed out that the use of Pegasus amounted to a gross violation of the Information Technology Act, 2000. READ MORE

Deposition by Mr. Anand—December 16th, 2021

Mr. Anand, a cybersecurity expert with over 20 years of experience, explained the technical aspects of the Pegasus spyware. He discussed the workings of the spyware and its evolution since its discovery. He also analysed the phones of Mr. Siddarth Varadarajan and Mr. Sushant Singh, both of whom were part of the list of potential targets published by The Wire. He showed indicators of Pegasus infection on their devices and submitted to the Committee that they were, in fact, targets of the spyware.

Deposition by Mr. Narasimhan Ram—December 27th, 2021

Mr. N. Ram is one of the petitioners in the case, and the former managing director and editor-in-chief of The Hindu. He claimed that individuals targeted by Pegasus were mainly investigative journalists critical of the Union. He emphasised that the use of Pegasus indicated a ‘surveillance regime’. He stressed on the need for parliamentary oversight of state surveillance. READ MORE

Deposition by Dr. Sashi Menon—December 30th, 2021

Dr. Sashi Menon, a former journalist, claimed that the level of sophistication behind Pegasus surpassed State-run intelligence technology. He explained how the spyware bypasses all existing procedural requirements of law enforcement and is not governed by any regulatory mechanism. The absence of a governing legal framework on surveillance has a chilling effect on the freedom of speech—which can only be subject to reasonable restrictions laid down by law. 

Deposition by Mr. Arvind Kumar—January 18th, 2022

Mr. Arvind Kumar, deposing in his capacity as a journalist, expressed scepticism over the allegations against the Indian Government. He accused Citizen Lab of trying to undermine governments it ‘did not agree with’. Interestingly, he said that he did not wish to talk about Pegasus, and focused instead on the motives of the journalists who reported on Pegasus. He alleged that Citizen Lab was associated with foreign governments which affected their credibility.

A visibly frustrated panel repeatedly sought clarity about Mr. Kumar’s key submissions. He submitted that he had no technical input—on the spyware or related laws. Instead he said that while he did not doubt the existence and usage of Pegasus, he was sceptical about the parties casting aspersions on the Indian Government.

Deposition by Mr. Rupesh Kumar and Mrs. Ipsa Shatakshi—January 20th, 2022

Mr. Rupesh Kumar, a freelance journalist, has been reporting on State violence against Adivasi communities since 2014. He alleged that the Union was spying on him and his partner, Mrs. Ipsa Shatakshi since his report on the alleged fake encounter of a suspected Maoist in Jharkhand. He recounted how his phone started acting strangely 2-3 months after publishing the report. Mrs. Shatakshi also recounted a similar experience. READ MORE

Deposition by Mr. Jagdeep Chhokar—January 24th, 2022

Mr. Chhokar, co-founder of Association for Democratic Reforms, described his experience on finding out that his phone had spyware. He said that it was shocking that his phone was deliberately infected with spyware and stated that it was a profound violation of his personhood. He described how major countries and corporations around the world had initiated action against the NSO Group while the Indian government had made no such efforts. He also expressed his suspicions, based on the findings of the Pegasus Project, that the spyware was planted by the Government.

Deposition by Hon’ble MP John Brittas—January 27th, 2022

Mr. John Brittas, a Member of Parliament from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), focused on the threat posed by Pegasus against democracy. He highlighted the need for increased regulatory oversight of intelligence agencies in the absence of public and legal accountability—security agencies do not provide information to RTI queries and no legislation governs the use of Pegasus. READ MORE

Deposition by Mr. Siddharth Varadarajan—February 2nd, 2022

Mr. Siddarth Varadarajan, former editor of The Hindu and co-founder of The Wire, was involved in the Pegasus investigation since March 2021. He spoke about how the use of Pegasus raised concerns about the sanctity of the Indian democratic process. He argued that intelligence agencies cannot use the absence of a legal framework to evade responsibility.

Deposition by Prof. Kaye—February 10th, 2022

Professor David Kaye, from the University of California’s Irvine School of Law, had previously worked as a UN Special Rapporteur to monitor trends concerning the Freedom of Speech. He shared his views on Pegasus in the context of human rights law with the Committee. He spoke about how surveillance must be subject to rigorous evaluation to test their conformity with international human rights law.

Deposition by Mr. J. Gopikrishnan—February 11th, 2022

Mr. J. Gopikrishnan, a journalist at The Pioneer and most notably known for his reportage on the 2G Spectrum Scam, deposed before the Technical Committee on February 11th, 2022. He submitted that he had been under surveillance since 2006 and that there is a pressing need for regulation on the use of spyware on citizens. He stressed that India must develop its own regulatory mechanism to control illegal surveillance. READ MORE

Deposition by Mr. S.N.M. Abdi—February 11th, 2022

Mr. S.N.M. Abdi, a journalist based in Kolkata, stated that he had submitted his grievances in his petition in the challenge before the Supreme Court. He approached the Technical Committee to express concerns that he was still under surveillance, as there had been no outcome from the Technical Committee so far.

Deposition by Mr. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta—February 14th, 2022

Mr. Paranjoy G. Thakurta, a journalist, writer and documentary maker, recounted his experience with Pegasus. He submitted that he consented to submit his phone for forensic analysis on discovering that his number was listed in the Forbidden Stories leak. The forensic test confirmed that his device had been infected by Pegasus. He speculated that he was targeted over a book he was authoring—‘The Real Face of Facebook In India’—about the role of Facebook in spreading propaganda. READ MORE