SC’s Pegasus order: Committee head Justice RV Raveendran given free hand; has wide terms of reference

Besides former SC judge Justice RV Raveendran, committee comprises of ex-IPS officer Alok Joshi and Dr Sundeep Oberoi, Chairman of ISO/IEC JTC1 SC7. A three-member Technical Committee was also formed

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

NH Web Desk

In a significant judgment passed on Wednesday, the Supreme Court ordered a probe into the Pegasus surveillance scandal by a committee headed by former apex court judge Justice RV Raveendran.

While doing so, the Bench of Chief Justice of India NV Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli made it clear that it would not rely on the Central government to form such a committee. It also highlighted the difficulties in appointing a committee of experts who are free from bias.

"At this juncture, it would be appropriate to state that in this world of conflicts, it was an extremely uphill task to find and select experts who are free from prejudices, are independent and competent. Rather than relying upon any Government agencies or any, we have constituted the Committee and shortlisted expert members based on bio-datas and information collected independently. Some of the candidates politely declined this assignment, while others had some conflict of interest. With our best intentions and efforts, we have shortlisted and chosen the most renowned experts available to be a part of the Committee," the Court said, as per a Bar & Bench report.

The Court also made it clear that Justice Raveendran would have the discretion to take assistance from any expert, if necessary, "to ensure absolute transparency and efficiency".

Committee members

The probe will be overseen by Justice Raveendran, who served as a judge of the apex court from 2005-2011. Post-retirement, he has been appointed to oversee investigations in a number of cases, including the Hadiya case. Most recently, he was appointed by the Andhra Pradesh High Court to lead an inquiry into allegations of a conspiracy against the Chief Justice of the High Court and a sitting judge of the Supreme Court. He served as Chairman of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) from 2013 to 2019.

Justice Raveendran will be assisted by Alok Joshi, a man described by the Court as having "immense and diverse investigative experience and technical knowledge." Joshi was part of the 1976 batch of the Indian Police Services (IPS) and has worked as the Joint Director of the Intelligence Bureau, Secretary of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Chairman of the National Technical Research Organisation.

Also assisting Justice Raveendran will be Dr Sundeep Oberoi, Chairman of ISO/IEC JTC1 SC7 (International Organisation of Standardisation/International Electro ­Technical Commission/Joint Technical Committee), a sub-­committee which develops and facilitates standards within the field of software products and systems. He is a globally recognized cyber security expert and was until recently the Global Head of Cybersecurity Services, TCS.

The Bench also called for the constitution of a Technical Committee comprising:

Dr. Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, Professor (Cyber Security and Digital Forensics) and Dean of the National Forensic Sciences University, Gujarat. He has over two decades of experience as an academician, cyber security enabler and cyber security expert.

Dr. Prabaharan P, Professor (School of Engineering), Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Kerala. He has two decades of experience in computer science and security areas.

Dr. Ashwin Anil Gumaste, Institute Chair Associate Professor (Computer Science and Engineering), Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. He has been granted 20 US patents and has published over 150 papers and authored 3 books in his field. He has received several National awards including the Vikram Sarabhai Research Award (2012) and Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology (2018).

Terms of reference

Importantly, the Committee is tasked with investigating whether the Pegasus spyware was used on phones or other devices of the citizens of India to access stored data, eavesdrop on conversations and intercept information. The other aspects to be probed are:

  • The details of the victims and/or persons affected by such a spyware attack.

  • What steps/actions have been taken by the Respondent­ Union of India after reports were published in the year 2019 about hacking of WhatsApp accounts of Indian citizens, using the Pegasus suite of spyware.

  • Whether any Pegasus suite of spyware was acquired by the Respondent ­Union of India, or any State Government, or any central or state agency for use against the citizens of India?

  • If any governmental agency has used the Pegasus suite of spyware on the citizens of this country, under what law, rule, guideline, protocol or lawful procedure was such deployment made?

  • If any domestic entity/person has used the spyware on the citizens of this country, then is such a use authorised?

  • Any other matter or aspect which may be connected, ancillary or incidental to the above terms of reference, which the Committee may deem fit and proper to investigate.

The Committee has also been directed to make recommendations:

  • Regarding enactment or amendment to existing law and procedures surrounding surveillance and for securing improved right to privacy.

  • Regarding enhancing and improving the cyber security of the nation and its assets.

  • To ensure prevention of invasion of citizens’ right to privacy, otherwise than in accordance with law, by State and/or non­-State entities through such spywares.

  • Regarding the establishment of a mechanism for citizens to raise grievances on suspicion of illegal surveillance of their devices.

  • Regarding the setting up of a well­-equipped independent premier agency to investigate cyber security vulnerabilities, for threat assessment relating to cyberattacks and to investigate instances of cyberattacks in the country.

  • Regarding any ad­ hoc arrangement that may be made by this Court as an interim measure for the protection of citizen’s rights, pending filling up of lacunae by the Parliament.

  • On any other ancillary matter that the Committee may deem fit and proper.

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