AN application filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, seeking information about the purchase of the spyware `Pegasus’ from Israel-based NSO group and the availing of services from NSO is presently languishing as a second appeal at the Central Information Commission (CIC) for the past several months. It was filed with the CIC after the central public information officers (CPIOs) and the first appellate authorities (FAAs) of both the ministry of home affairs (MHA) and the national investigative agency (NIA) refused information.
Being a journalist himself and concerned whether he could also be the victim of tapping, Saurav Das, the RTI applicant, states, “I have a genuine apprehension that being an investigative journalist and transparency activist, I’m also susceptible to such illegal snooping like many others. I am also susceptible to such gross human rights violation and breach of my fundamental right to privacy and thereby the right to life and liberty, guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Therefore, it becomes all the more important to establish transparency and seek the answers through RTIs from the competent authorities of MHA and NIA.’’
The reply he got for his RTI application in March 2021 by the CPIO of MHA was: “The undersigned CPIO has no information to furnish in the matter.”
The FAA too concurred with the CPIO stating that his reply was “appropriate and in order.”
Mr Das argues that being only a deputy secretary in the MHA, the CPIO would not have such sensitive information at his desk. So he had requested the CPIO to avail the assistance of other officers, including the Union home secretary under Section 5(4) and 5(5) of the RTI Act since access to such high-level information would be available and only with the home secretary and other such senior-level officers.
This request was, however, turned down by the CPIO says Mr Das, which is in gross violation of several court judgments.
The RTI application filed by Mr Das had sought the following information from the MHA and NIA:
Whether the ministry of home affairs or any of its connected investigating/law enforcement agencies/departments have ever purchased or given a purchase order for PEGASUS- spyware developed by Israeli Cyber arms firm- NSO Group; if so, on which date; if not, whether there was any proposal for the same at any point of time;
Whether the MHA or any of its connected investigating/law enforcement agencies/departments have ever used the services of NSO Group, Israel. If so, the details thereof and the expenditure towards it;
Whether the MHA or any of its connected investigating/law enforcement agencies/departments have ever subscribed to any of NSO Group, Israel’s products, like the Pegasus or services. If so, the details thereof including at what cost;
Furnish a copy of any search and enquiry conducted in pursuance to the Hon’ble Delhi High Court order.
In his second appeal to the CIC, Mr Das says that he had asked for an “urgent appeal’’ for which he has quoted several Supreme Court judgments, including the one of Arnab Goswami V/s The State of Maharashtra & Ors. Criminal Appeal No. 742 of 2020. In this case, Supreme Court, in its judgement, had noted- “60. Human liberty is a precious constitutional value, which is undoubtedly subject to regulation by validly enacted legislation……. Liberty across human eras is as tenuous as tenuous can be. Liberty survives by the vigilance of her citizens, on the cacophony of the media and in the dusty corridors of courts alive to the rule of (and not by) law. Yet, much too often, liberty is a casualty when one of these components is found wanting.” “61. Deprivation of liberty even for a single day is one day too many.”
He has requested in his second appeal to the CIC to recognise a senior-level officer and the home secretary as the deemed CPIO and assigns him/her the task to furnish this information within seven days, in a clear, detailed, point-wise manner as sought in his RTI application.
Mr Das has also requested the CIC to direct the department of personnel and training ( DoPT), the nodal agency for the RTI Act, to issue a relevant circular to grant a personal hearing at the stage of the first appeal in compliance with the relevant orders of the Supreme Court and High Courts and admonish the FAA for disregarding the same.
He had requested the CIC to hold an urgent hearing in this matter, “seeing the immense public interest and deprivation of liberty of several Indians.’’
However, rues Mr Das, “that the CIC is completely compromised is very evident by its actions. A body whose sole responsibility is to uphold public interest and order disclosure of the information is often hesitant to pass a significant disclosure order in a matter of public interest. This is because most of them are former bureaucrats, some of whom have worked under the present government, or are those who are close to the regime.”
He has also filed an RTI to the ministry of electronics & information technology (MEITY) on a letter of 31 Oct 2019 from the IT ministry to the Facebook-owned messaging platform-WhatsApp to explain the breach of privacy and data of Indians, using the NSO Group spyware- Pegasus. He has received no reply.
For recall, Pegasus is a spyware capable of reading text messages, tracking calls, collecting passwords, tracing the phone’s location, accessing the target devices, microphone(s) and video camera(s), and gathering information from apps.
The Washington Post reports that 189 journalists, more than 600 politicians and government officials and more than 60 business executives were targeted by clients of NSO Group, a hacker-for-hire headquartered in Israel.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet – The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart – Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)