Manohar Lal Sharma v. Union of India

The Pegasus spyware case, also known as Manohar Lal Sharma v. Union of India[1], concerns claims of illegal surveillance by Indian government agencies employing the Israeli business NSO Group’s[2] Pegasus spyware. The following are the case’s salient facts:

A group of foreign media outlets, including “The Wire, revealed in July 2021 that Pegasus malware had been used by a number of nations, notably the Indian government, to spy on specific people.”[3] According to reports, the spyware can infect cellphones and other devices, giving the attacker access to private information like emails, texts, and images.Following the disclosures, the Indian Supreme Court received multiple petitions contesting the government entities’ purported use of Pegasus spyware. Manohar Lal Sharma was one of the petitioners, requesting an impartial inquiry into the situation and holding the government accountable. A three-person committee was established by the Supreme Court to look into the claims of monitoring after it granted suo motu cognizance of the case. The committee was assigned the responsibility of investigating the type of surveillance conducted, the legitimacy of the government’s actions, and the effects on the persons’ rights that were impacted.After conducting its investigation, the committee reported its findings to the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, the report’s contents were kept secret, which prompted criticism of the process’s lack of transparency from various places.After conducting its investigation, the committee reported its findings to the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, the report’s contents were kept secret, which prompted criticism of the process’s lack of transparency from various places.

Issues Raised

Here are the primary issues of the case:

  • Right to PrivacyThe case brought up important issues regarding the Indian Constitution’s “Article 21”[4]right to privacy. Serious concerns about the breach of this fundamental right are raised by the use of spyware like Pegasus to monitor people’s private messages and activities without their consent.
  • Legality of monitoring: Another issue raised in this case was the legitimacy of government use of spyware for monitoring. It brought to light questions about the legality of government agencies’ surveillance practices and the acceptable range of such practices.
  • The absence of accountability and openness in the purported surveillance actions in the case was another significant problem. The petitioners contended that there were worries about power abuse and rights violations because the government had not given enough information about the monitoring operations.
  • Consequences for “Freedom of Speech and Expression”[5]: The monitoring of journalists, activists, and political rivals by surveillance technologies has sparked worries about how this may affect people’s right to free speech and expression. The case brought to light the potential chilling effect that such surveillance could have on people’s freedom of speech and capacity to express opposing opinions.
  • The case demonstrated the importance of strict regulation of surveillance technology in order to guard against abuse and safeguard people’s rights. It called into question whether the rules and procedures now in place to control the use of spyware and other monitoring tools are sufficient.

Contention

According to the petitioners, the use of Pegasus spyware to target specific people violated their basic right to privacy, which is protected by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. They argued that in order to accomplish a lawful state goal, surveillance operations must be carried out in a way that respects people’s right to privacy and is both necessary and reasonable.

It was argued that there was no legitimate reason or authority for the purported Pegasus spyware monitoring. The petitioners contended that any government monitoring must be legally permitted and carried out in compliance with the rules set forth by the law.

The petitioners expressed worries about possible power abuse by government organizations utilizing spyware for spying. They contended that people’s rights and liberties would be violated if such surveillance was used to target people based on their political opinions, social connections, or other personal traits.
The petitioners stressed the importance of openness and accountability in relation to government monitoring operations. They contended that in addition to being held responsible for any rights abuses, the government ought to be forced to provide details regarding the extent and character of its monitoring activities.

The petitioners also emphasized the potential chilling effect spyware-based surveillance could have on the right to free speech and expression. They contended that people may be discouraged from speaking out against the status quo or participating in appropriate activities if they believe their communications are being watched.

Rationale

The Indian Constitution’s Article 21 guarantees the basic right to privacy, which were the subject of the case. There are grave concerns over the violation of this right when malware such as Pegasus is used to spy on people without their permission.
The goal of the case was to hold government organizations accountable for their surveillance operations. The aim of the study was to prove that any form of monitoring has to be lawful, essential, and reasonable in order to accomplish a valid governmental objective. This was essential for stopping the misuse of authority and defending people’s rights.

The case demonstrated how crucial it is to protect the rule of law when it comes to privacy and monitoring. It stressed that surveillance operations have to be carried out in compliance with the law and established protocols, and that any infractions have to be addressed through the judicial system.
The case made clear how important it is for government monitoring programs to be transparent. It underlined that sufficient controls should be in place to prevent the exploitation of surveillance technology and that the government should be open and honest about the extent and character of its monitoring operations.

The goal of the litigation was to defend the right to free speech and expression. It acknowledged that the use of spyware for surveillance could have a chilling impact on people’s capacity to voice divergent opinions or participate in lawful activities, and it aimed to stop this from happening.

The protection of the right to free speech and expression was the aim of the legal action. It recognized that the use of spyware for monitoring may stifle people’s ability to express opposing views or take part in legitimate activities, and it sought to prevent this from occurring.

Defects of law

Although significant privacy and surveillance-related issues were addressed in the Manohar Lal Sharma v. Union of India case, certain alleged legal flaws were brought up during the proceedings. The following are some of the main flaws:

Absence of clear Law: One of the primary flaws brought to light was the lack of clear laws regulating the use of Pegasus-style surveillance technologies. Government agency monitoring operations are subject to unclear legal and policy frameworks, which has sparked questions about accountability and possible abuse of this technology.
Ambiguity in Current legislation: The case also brought attention to the vagueness in current privacy and surveillance legislation. The petitioners contended that there was uncertainty and possible rights violations as a result of the existing legal framework’s inability to handle the complex challenges created by surveillance technologies.

Insufficient Safety Measures: The absence of sufficient measures to avert the abuse of surveillance technologies was identified as another flaw. The petitioners contended that there were inadequate safeguards in place to guarantee that monitoring operations were carried out legally and in compliance with fundamental rights.
Lack of Transparency: Concerns over the opaque nature of government monitoring programs were also brought up by this case. The petitioners contended that the government ought to be more open about its monitoring practices and give the general public more information regarding the extent and character of these operations.

Failing to Address Emerging Technologies: The case brought to light how outdated regulations are in comparison to new developments in technology. The petitioners contended that emerging surveillance technologies brought special difficulties that the existing judicial systems were ill-equipped to handle.

The Manohar Lal Sharma v. Union of India case exposed legal flaws that emphasised the necessity of comprehensive legislation and strong protections to preserve privacy and stop the improper use of surveillance technology.

Inference

There are various significant conclusions that may be made from the hearings and verdict of the Pegasus spyware case Manohar Lal Sharma v. Union of India. Here are a few important inferences:

  • The case emphasizes the necessity for India to enact stricter privacy legislation to shield citizens from illegal monitoring. The lack of regulations specifically controlling the use of surveillance technologies like as Pegasus emphasizes how crucial it is to pass laws that protect individuals’ right to privacy.
  • The case emphasizes how crucial accountability and openness are to government monitoring programs. It emphasizes the necessity of precise policies and procedures to guarantee that monitoring operations are carried out legally and do not violate people’s rights.
  • The case serves as a reminder of the difficulties that surveillance technology presents, especially when it comes to safeguarding fundamental rights and maintaining privacy. It emphasizes how important it is for legislators and regulators to be up to date with technology developments and pass laws that specifically address the problems that these technologies provide.
  • The case highlights the judiciary’s crucial role in defending constitutional rights and keeping the administration responsible. The judiciary’s dedication to maintaining the rule of law is demonstrated by the Supreme Court’s decision to establish a committee to look into the claims of monitoring and take suo motu notice of the case.
  • Concerns concerning how surveillance affects the right to free speech and expression are also brought up by this case. The capacity of people to exercise their rights and take part in democratic discourse may be inhibited by the use of spyware like Pegasus to target journalists, activists, and political rivals.


The intricate legal and moral concerns around privacy and monitoring in the digital age are brought to light by the Manohar Lal Sharma v. Union of India case. It emphasizes how crucial it is to strike a careful balance between individual rights and national security needs, as well as how crucial it is to make sure that surveillance operations are carried out in a way that is both legal and open.

  • MANASVI GARG

VIVEKANANDA INSTITUTE OF PROFESSIONAL STUDIES


[1] Manohar lal sharma v. Union of India (2021), writ petition (Crl),334

[2]Vas panagiotopoulos, Notorious Spyware Maker NSO Group Is Quietly Plotting a Comeback, The Wired, (Jan 24, 2024, 07:00 a.m), https://www.wired.com/story/nso-group-lobbying-israel-hamas-war/

[3]Siddharth Varadarajan, Revealed: How The Wire and Its Partners Cracked the Pegasus Project and What It Means for India, The Wire, (July 30, 2021),https://m.thewire.in/article/media/revealed-how-the-wire-partners-cracked-pegasus-project-implications-india.

[4]INDIA CONST. art.21.

[5]INDIA CONST. art.19. cl.1 (a)

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