Parts of Pegasus report to be made public; no conclusive evidence of spyware

Updated on Aug 25, 2022 02:37 PM IST

The Pegasus panel has said the government did not cooperate with the probe and recommended new laws and measures to protect citizens from illegal surveillance and cyber attacks

The hearing into the matter was adjourned for four weeks. (AP)
The hearing into the matter was adjourned for four weeks. (AP)

There was inconclusive evidence on the presence of Pegasus spyware in the 29 phones a committee of Supreme Court-appointed experts analysed even as the panel said the government did not cooperate with its probe while recommending new laws and measures to protect citizens from illegal surveillance and cyber attacks.

The panel found some malware in five of the phones but there was nothing conclusive to show it was Pegasus.

Chief Justice Of India (CJI) NV Ramana said the Pegasus report is in three parts and includes two reports of a technical committee and one by ex-Supreme Court judge RV Raveendran.

“Some part of the Pegasus panel report is confidential and may also contain private information,” said the CJI as the court heard the matter on Thursday. He added the committee is of the view that the technical report may not be made public.

The CJI said they will put the third report by Justice Raveendran on the website. “There is nothing secret,” he said as the hearing into the matter was adjourned for four weeks.

HT on August 6 reported the panel has found no evidence that Pegasus was used to snoop on the phones it studied after technical analysis that may be part of its report. The Raveendran committee analysed devices and details of the finding are in its over 600-page document submitted to the court.

The committee was mandated to determine whether the Pegasus spyware was used on phones or other devices to access stored data, eavesdrop on conversations, intercept information, etc. The mandate also included determining details of those targeted with the spyware, the actions taken following the alleged illegal infiltration, whether the government acquired Pegasus to spy on Indian citizens, and if it did, under what rule or guideline.

HT reported the findings were based on “sophisticated tests” conducted on the devices people voluntarily turned in. Among the tools used was one made by Amnesty International, which was among the organisations that examined Pegasus infections, and the programme was also used in other countries for forensic analysis.

The government also used its own tools and devices and over a 600-page document refers to the technical analysis and the methodology.

In July 2021, a consortium of media outlets and investigative journalists reported that the phones of Indian ministers, politicians, activists, businessmen, and journalists were among the 50,000 selected for infection with the Pegasus malware. Three HT journalists were a part of the list.

The malware is regarded as a military-grade tool, deploying cutting-edge methods to infect a person’s device and intercept calls, turn on the microphone or the camera, and access any device data, including messages, photos, and videos.

Among the 50,000 phones reported in the media, several were later found to have been infected through independent forensics by other countries and organisations.

Cybersecurity experts say it is in general difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain infection by Pegasus on Android phones. The malware is made by Israel-based NSO Group, which has maintained it only supplies the tool to government clients.

Among the Indians who featured on the list of 50,000 numbers were 38 journalists, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, two of his aides, political strategist Prashant Kishor, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa, and Union ministers Prahlad Patel and Ashwini Vaishnaw.

Vaishnaw last year dismissed snooping allegations in Parliament saying that there were inconsistencies in the media reports.

Among the people who turned in their phones for analysis and gave testimonies to the panel were Sashi Menon, Sandeep Shukla, N Ram, Rupesh Kumar, Jagdeep Chhokar, John Brittas, Siddharth Vardarajan, David Kaye, J Gopikrishnan, and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.

In October 2021, the Supreme Court said the Union government cannot get “a free pass every time” by raising the spectre of “national security” when the issues concern the “potential chilling effect” on right to privacy and freedom of speech. It appointed the committee, under the supervision of Raveendran, to be assisted by former police officer Alok Joshi and cybersecurity expert Sundeep Oberoi.

The technical panel comprised Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, dean of the National Forensic Sciences University in Gandhinagar, Prabaharan P, professor at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Kerala, and Ashwin Anil Gumaste, an institute chair associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

The first deadline for the report was May 20. It was later extended as the Supreme Court asked the panel to expedite its investigation. The report was finally submitted after multiple delays.

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