From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Articles mentioned in the newscard
Mains level : Pegasus issue
The Supreme Court has appointed an independent expert technical committee overseen by a former apex court judge, Justice R.V. Raveendran, to examine allegations that the government used Israeli spyware, Pegasus, to snoop on its own citizens.
Why need a committee?
- Decisions in cases seeking enforcement of fundamental rights are based on facts.
- The task of determining these facts, when they are disputed or unknown, are often assigned to committees, which act as an agent of the court.
- Such committees or fact-finding teams can summon individuals, prepare ground reports, and inform the court.
- The Pegasus case involves technical questions, and requires extensive fact-finding for the court to determine whether fundamental rights were violated, and to pass suitable orders.
Functions of the committee:
What is Pegasus?
- All spyware do what the name suggests — they spy on people through their phones.
- Pegasus works by sending an exploit link, and if the target user clicks on the link, the malware or the code that allows the surveillance is installed on the user’s phone.
- A presumably newer version of the malware does not even require a target user to click a link.
- Once Pegasus is installed, the attacker has complete access to the target user’s phone.
Why in news?
- The three-judge bench, headed by CJI N V Ramana rejected the government’s plea to let it constitute an expert panel to investigate the issue.
What did the SC rule?
- The SC order broadly addresses three issues that have been flagged in the Pegasus row:
- Citizen’s right to privacy (Article 21)
- Judicial review when the executive invokes national security (Article 13, Article 32)
(Article 13: declares that any law which contravenes any of the provisions of the part of Fundamental Rights shall be void.
Articles 32 and 226 entrusts the roles of the protector and guarantor of fundamental rights to the Supreme and High Courts.)
- Implications of surveillance on free speech
[A] Upholding Right to Privacy
- The Court, pointing to its own judgment in K S Puttaswamy Case (2017) has said that “right to privacy (under Article 21) is as sacrosanct as human existence.
- It is inalienable to human dignity and autonomy.
- While agreeing that it is not an absolute right, the Court has said any restrictions “must necessarily pass constitutional scrutiny”.
- Any surveillance or snooping done on an individual by the state or any outside agency is an infringement of that person’s right to privacy.
- Hence, any violation of that right by the state, even in national interest, has to follow procedures established by the law.
[B] Linking surveillance and censorship
- The Court has also drawn a link between:
- Surveillance, especially the knowledge that one is under the threat of being spied on”, and
- Censorship, particularly self-censorship, to reflect on the potential chilling effect that snooping techniques may have
- The chilling effect surveillance can produce, is an assault on the vital public-watchdog role of the press, which may undermine the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information.
[C] Constituting a panel
- The Court has constituted a panel of experts under former SC judge Justice R V Raveendran.
- It has sharply defined the questions it needs to ask and find answers to: Was any Pegasus suite of spyware acquired by the central or any state government for use against the citizens of India.
- It would inquire under what law, rule, guidelines, protocol or lawful procedure was such deployment made.
- These are vital questions at the heart of a citizen’s basic rights.
Significance of the Judgement
- The order is a strong rebuttal of the government’s specious and self-serving use of national security.
- The Court has ruled that the state does not get a free pass every time the spectre of ‘national security’ is raised.
- This also means “no omnibus prohibition can be called for against judicial review” if the matter impinges on national security.