Finding material that “prima facie merits consideration”, a bench comprising Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli declined the Centre’s plea to appoint expert panel on its own, saying such a course would violate settled judicial principle against bias.
Former Justice Raveendran will oversee functioning of the panel of “cyber security, digital forensics, networks and hardware” and the three members are: Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, Prabaharan P and Ashwin Anil Gumaste.
The apex court said that former IPS officer Alok Joshi and Sundeep Oberoi Chairman, Sub Committee in (International Organisation of Standardisation/ International Electro-Technical Commission/Joint Technical Committee) will assist Justice Raveendran to oversee the task to the committee.
Experts say this leads to setback for Modi led union government as The Supreme Court on Wednesday appointed a three-member panel of cyber experts to probe the alleged use of Israeli spyware Pegasus for surveillance of certain people in India, saying every citizen needs protection against privacy violation and mere invocation of “national security by State” does not render the court a “mute spectator”.
It posted the batch of pleas in the matter, including the ones filed by Editors Guild of India and veteran journalists N Ram and Shashi Kumar, for hearing after eight weeks.
The bench took note of the vehement submissions of the Centre on national security and rejected it saying, “…this does not mean that the Union Government gets a free pass every time the spectre of ‘national security’ is raised.
“National security cannot be the bugbear that the judiciary shies away from, by virtue of its mere mentioning. Although this Court should be circumspect in encroaching the domain of national security, no omnibus prohibition can be called for against judicial review.” Pronouncing the verdict, the CJI said the Centre “must justify the stand that they take before a Court.
The mere invocation of national security by the State does not render the Court a mute spectator”.
The top court said 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 private entity.
“We make it clear that our effort is to uphold Constitutional aspirations and rule of law, without allowing ourselves to be consumed in political rhetoric,” the bench said, adding that this court has always been conscious of not entering political thicket.
“Members of civilised democratic society have reasonable expectation of privacy.
Privacy is not singular concern of journalists or social activists,” the bench said.
In a democratic country governed by rule of law, indiscriminate spying on individuals cannot be allowed except with sufficient statutory safeguards, by following procedure established by law under Constitution, it said.
The bench had reserved order on September 13, saying it only wanted to know whether or not the Centre used the Pegasus spyware through illegal methods to allegedly snoop on citizens.
The apex court was hearing a batch of pleas seeking independent probe into the alleged Pegasus snooping matter.
The pleas seeking independent probe are related to reports of alleged snooping by government agencies on eminent citizens, politicians and scribes by using Israeli firm NSO’s spyware Pegasus.
An international media consortium had reported that over 300 verified Indian mobile phone numbers were on the list of potential targets for surveillance using Pegasus spyware.