NEW DELHI—Activist and lawyer Prashant Bhushan is planning to file a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court to seek an investigation by cyber experts into the WhatsApp hacking of human rights activists, lawyers and journalists that was revealed early on Thursday, HuffPost India has learnt.
“We will ask that the government should come clean about whose phones were tapped and who ordered it, and there should be complete accountability; there should be an investigation into this. Full investigation by cyber experts,” Bhushan said while speaking with this reporter on Thursday evening.
Earlier in the day, news reports revealed how Pegasus, a controversial WhatsApp snooping software manufactured by Israeli firm NSO Group, had targeted several activists, lawyers and journalists. HuffPost India reported how the mobile phone of Nagpur-based lawyer Nihalsingh Rathod, who is handling many critical cases in the Bhima Koregaon case, was targeted by the software.
We will ask that the government should come clean about whose phones were tapped and who ordered it, and there should be complete accountability; there should be an investigation into this. Full investigation by cyber expertsPrashant Bhushan
The Congress party pointed finger at the Narendra Modi-led government, accusing it of having ordered surveillance against dissenters. Responding to this claim and the news reports earlier in the day, Union Information and Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad refuted the criticism.
“The Government is committed to protecting the privacy of all Indian citizens. Government agencies have a well established protocol for interception, which includes sanction and supervision from highly ranked officials in central & state governments, for clear stated reasons in national interest,” Prasad’s written statement said.
But Bhushan believes the Modi government indulged in illegal surveillance and Prasad was only pretending to not know. “This kind of spyware or malware which the Israeli government uses can only be used by governments. And therefore it is clear that it was the (Modi) government, or at the (Modi) government’s orders, that this kind of targeting has been done of the human rights activists and lawyers and journalists etc. Clearly this is something the government would be wanting to do. And it’s totally illegal. It’s a gross violation of the right to privacy of the people,” he said.
The Senior Lawyer also said the hacking was in “gross violation of several Supreme Court judgements, not only the Right to Privacy but the earlier judgement of PUCL where they (SC judges) had laid down guidelines how and under what circumstances, and by following what procedure phones could be tapped.”
He felt, if it was so necessary, the government could have conducted surveillance by following procedures mentioned in the 1996 judgement of the SC.
“It’s pretty clear that those procedures would not have been followed in this case. And the fact that Ravi Shankar Prasad claims ignorance about it also shows that it has not been done officially. It has been done unofficially. What I mean is that it has not been done legally. If it had been done legally then obviously Ravi Shankar Prasad would not have feigned ignorance. It has been done illegally without following due process or procedure,” said Bhushan.
The veteran activist said he was even open to accept that the government can tap WhatsApp calls, if needed, but it had to follow the laid down procedure. He believes that is not the case. “It has been done surreptitiously. And it’s a gross violation of law, and therefore this matter will go to court. We will take it to the court,” he said.
When asked if his legal intervention will be in the form of a PIL, Bhushan replied in the affirmative.
“It’s a matter of grave public interest and importance. Hundreds of activists and lawyers and journalists, if their phones have been tapped like this, Whatsaspp has been tapped like this, then it’s clearly a matter of very, very serious public concern. Very serious,” he said.