India’s highest court investigates government espionage charges

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NEW DELHI (AP) – India’s highest court on Wednesday established an expert committee to examine accusations that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi used military-grade Israeli spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists.

The Supreme Court order came in response to petitions filed by a group of Indian journalists, rights activists and opposition politicians following an investigation by a global media consortium in July. The committee, headed by a retired judge, is expected to deliver its findings by the end of the year.

The Indian opposition has called for an investigation into how Israeli spyware, known as Pegasus, has been used in India.

Modi’s government has “unequivocally” denied all allegations of illegal surveillance. Indian Information Technology Minister Ashwani Vaishnaw dismissed the allegations in parliament in July, calling them “very sensational”, “exaggerated” and “an attempt to slander Indian democracy”.

But the government in an affidavit did not tell the court whether it was using Israeli equipment to spy, citing security reasons.

On Wednesday, the court said the state couldn’t get a free pass every time raising security concerns.

“The violation of the right to privacy and freedom of expression, as alleged in the pleadings, must be examined,” said the Press Trust of India, citing Chief Justice NV Ramanna.

Based on targeting data leaks, the findings of a global media consortium provided evidence that spyware from Israeli group NSO, the world’s most infamous hacker company, was used to infiltrate devices belonging to a range of targets, including journalists, activists and political opponents in 50 countries.

The company said in July that it only sells to “controlled government agencies” for use against terrorists and serious criminals and that it has no visibility into its customer data.

Critics call these claims dishonest and have provided evidence that NSO directly handles high-tech espionage. They say the repeated abuse of Pegasus spyware highlights the almost complete lack of regulation of the private global surveillance industry.

Pegasus infiltrates phones to suck up personal and location data and surreptitiously controls smartphone microphones and cameras. In the case of journalists, this allows hackers to spy on journalists’ communications with sources.

Rights groups say the findings reinforce accusations that not only autocratic regimes but also democratic governments, including India, have used spyware for political ends.

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