Several opposition leaders — Shashi Tharoor, Pawan Khera, Supriya Shrinate of the Congress; Mahua Moitra of TMC; AAP’s Raghav Chadha; CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury; Priyanka Chaturvedi of Shiv Sena (UBT); and Asaduddin Owaisi of AIMIM — on Tuesday (October 31) said they had received a “threat notification” from Apple, alerting them to a “potential state-sponsored spyware attack” on their iPhones.
Chadha compared the alleged attack to the Pegasus malware attack targeting activists and politicians in several countries that was reported two years ago. “This notification is reminiscent of the Pegasus spyware scandal which also had targeted many voices that are critical of the BJP. Even in this attack, I am not the only opposition leader who has been attacked,” he said.
This is what happened with the Pegasus case.
First, what was the Pegasus spyware case?
In July 2021, a global collaborative investigative project reported that a spyware called Pegasus, developed by an Israeli cybersecurity company called NSO Group, may have been used to target mobile phones of individuals in several countries, including India.
The central government repeatedly rejected the conclusions of the global media investigation, and condemned what it claimed was the alleged undermining of national security by the opposition. However, it also refused to supply any facts in the matter — and also never explicitly denied the use of Pegasus.
On October 27, 2021, a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court led by then Chief Justice of India (CJI) N V Ramana appointed an Expert Committee headed by Justice R V Raveendran (retd) to look into the allegations in the Pegasus spyware case, “taking into account the public importance and the alleged scope and nature of the large-scale violation of the fundamental rights of the citizens of the country”.
What was this expert committee, and what was it tasked to do?
The court framed seven terms of reference for the committee, which were essentially facts that needed to be ascertained to decide the issue. These included determining who procured Pegasus, whether the petitioners were indeed targeted by the use of the malware, and what laws justified the use of spyware such as Pegasus against Indian citizens.
The court also asked the committee to make recommendations on a legal and policy framework on cyber security to ensure the right to privacy of citizens was protected. The committee was initially expected to submit its report in eight weeks.
The technical committee comprised three members: Dr Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, dean of the National Forensic Sciences University in Gandhinagar; Dr Prabaharan P, professor at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Kerala; and Dr Ashwin Anil Gumaste, Institute Chair Associate Professor at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.
Justice Raveendran, who had in the past been described by then CJI Ramana as “one of the legends who have increased the prestige of the Supreme Court of India”, was asked to supervise the working of the committee.
In overseeing the work of the three-member technical committee, Justice Raveendran was to be assisted by two other experts: Alok Joshi, a former chief of India’s external intelligence agency R&AW, and Dr Sundeep Oberoi, global head of cybersecurity services at TCS.
Did the committee find Pegasus in the phones it examined?
On August 25, 2022, the top court recorded in its order that the expert committee found no conclusive evidence for the use of the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware in the phones that it examined. The court also noted that the Centre “has not cooperated” with the panel.
“They (the panel) observed that the Government of India has not cooperated. Whatever stand you have taken here (in the court earlier), you have taken the same stand, it appears, before the committee also,” the CJI, heading a three-judge Bench that perused the report by the committee, told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.
Following this, the court proceeded to examine the report and found that the committee had examined 29 phones but had not found conclusive evidence for the use of Pegasus in any of them. Malware was, indeed, found in five phones, the court noted, but this did not mean that the malware was Pegasus.
“Based on the above, it is concluded that 5 of the 29 phones may have had some infection due to a malware or due to poor cyber hygiene and data available is limited and hence inconclusive to determine,” the CJI said, citing the expert committee’s report.
So what exactly did the committee’s report say?
The committee’s report was in three parts.
The first part answered the court’s queries, including “whether…Pegasus…was used on phones or other devices of the citizens of India to access stored data, eavesdrop on conversations, intercept information and/ or for any other purposes not explicitly stated herein?”
The second part contained the committee’s recommendations as sought by the court to improve cyber security. The third part contained the report of the supervising judge.
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The CJI said that the committee had stated that its report contained information about malware that could be exploited by criminals to get a lead over law enforcement agencies. It could also create new and more sophisticated malware or “information/ research material related to malware attribution that might pose threat to the national security apparatus” and “material extracted from private mobile instruments which may contain private confidential information”, the CJI said.
In its order, the Bench, also comprising Justices Hima Kohli and Surya Kant, stated: “…The Technical Committee and the Overseeing Judge have submitted their reports in sealed covers. The same are taken on record. The sealed covers were opened in the Court and we read out some portions of the said reports. Thereafter, the reports were re-sealed and kept in the safe custody of the Secretary General of this Court, who shall make it available as and when required by the Court”.
After this, the court listed the case for further hearing after four weeks. However, no hearing has taken place since then.
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