NEW DELHI: The proceedings at a district court in Tel Aviv, Israel, headed by Judge Rachel Barkai are being keenly watched by individuals part of the policy apparatus in India, as the court will decide whether the export licence given to the NSO Group, which developed the Pegasus spyware, should be revoked or not. The court is hearing the case against the NSO Group, filed by Amnesty International along with other groups.
However, a more important fallout of the court proceedings could be details becoming public of the individuals, organisations and countries that have used or have been using Pegasus.
It was to contain this threat that Israel’s Ministry of Defence made a request to the court to bar the public and media from observing and writing about the court hearings, an argument which was accepted by the court. The court, last week, accepted the arguments of the Israel Ministry of Defence that holding the proceedings in an open court could endanger “Israel’s foreign relations and lead to divulging of state secrets”.
On 28 November 2019, while speaking in the Rajya Sabha and answering a question posed by Congress Rajya Sabha member Digvijaya Singh—who had asked whether Government of India was using the Pegasus software—Union IT and Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had said that no “unauthorised interception was done”, which was termed by those who were following the matter as an “evasive” reply.
As per government rules, 10 agencies are authorised to intercept or snoop in India—the Intelligence Bureau, Central Bureau of Investigation, Enforcement Directorate, Narcotics Control Bureau, Central Board of Direct Taxes, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, National Investigation Agency, R&AW, Directorate of Signal Intelligence and Delhi Police Commissioner.
However, no rule is there, at least on public platforms, as to how these intercepts or snooping can be done and this is where the importance or the dangers of spyware applications like Pegasus come into the picture.
The Sunday Guardian had done a report (NSO demonstrated use of Pegasus to Chhattisgarh police) in November 2019, in which it had written that NSO Group had come to India and demonstrated the use of this software to Chhattisgarh state police in 2017.
Later, the Chhattisgarh government, under Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, had constituted a three-member committee comprising Principal Secretary Subrat Sahu, Commissioner, public relations department Taran Prakash Sinha and the Raipur range Inspector General of Police Anand Chhabra to probe into the “alleged” snooping.
Speaking to The Sunday Guardian, Tom Mackey, press officer of Amnesty International, said that the suit was brought by Amnesty because NSO’s spyware products were used in malicious attacks on human rights activists and journalists around the world. “We expect the judgment this week, but that is not confirmed. The judge decided for the hearing to be behind closed doors; we await to see what details of the judgment can be disclosed publicly. We have argued there is a clear public interest for as much information as possible on the case to be made public,” he said.
The legal action seeking to revoke the NSO Group’s export licence is being brought by approximately 30 members and supporters of Amnesty International Israel and others from the human rights community.
The NSO, on its part, has maintained that its software is used for “legal purpose” by government agencies. It has neither accepted nor denied The Sunday Guardian’s contention put to it in the past regarding whether Pegasus was being used in India or not.