FPJ Edit: Do we use Pegasus to help detect Pegasus?

The brouhaha over the latest Pegasus revelations should not make us lose sight of some basic facts; that there are serious allegations about the military-grade spyware being used on civilians; that the government has been stonewalling any query on it; that the Supreme Court had to finally tell the government that it could not hide behind ‘national security’ all the time. Now, even as the report of the expert committee appointed by the SC to look into the allegations is awaited, a New York Times report says that the ties between PM Modi and PM Netanyahuhad “warmed” because of their agreement for the sale of “a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear worth roughly $2 billion — with Pegasus and a missile system as the center-pieces”. It is difficult to dismiss off hand the NYT report, which lists several countries including India, the UAE, Hungary, Poland and Mexico among those who had purchased the spying software, noting that they had not just strengthened ties with the Netanyahu government, but had shifted on support to Palestine and muted opposition to Israel at the United Nations.

Had it not been for a global media expose – Project Pegasus — the Indian government would have brushed aside the allegations, as it did in 2019. The project began when the Paris-based non-profit organisation, Forbidden Stories, got a leaked list of over 50,000 phone numbers allegedly targeted for surveillance by clients of NSO – the Israeli firm which makes the spyware – since 2016. It roped in Amnesty International as a technical partner and teamed up with16 news media organisations in ten countries where 80 journalists began corroborating the details. Globally, the suspected victims include three sitting Presidents – France’s Emmanuel Macron, Iraq’s Barham Salih and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa – and three current PMs: Pakistan’s Imran Khan, Egypt’s Mostafa Madbouly and Morocco’s Saad Eddine El Othmani.

In India, the favorite targets were journalists, some 40 of them at last count. Independent digital forensic analysis conducted on ten Indian phones showed signs of successful or attempted Pegasushack. Among them are leading anti-establishment journalist Siddharth Varadarajan of the news portal ‘The Wire’ and independent journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. Pegasus software, whose sales to foreign governments are vetted by the Israeli government, helped Saudi Arabia spy on Jamal Khashoggi, dissident, journalist and columnist for The Washington Post, who was later killed in Turkey.

The Pegasus affair cannot be compared with Watergate, as Subramaniam Swamy suggests. It is far worse and on a global scale. The latter was a break-in ordered by the Nixon administration at the rival party’s office to get some ‘incriminating evidence’. Today, such evidence can not only be stealthily extracted from the mobile phone of the target, it can also be planted in the target’s phone or laptop, as is the contention of the scholars and activists branded as terrorists in the Bhima Koregaon case.

Looking back, it was the effrontery of the government in scuttling a Parliamentary panel’s meeting on the Pegasus issue that was the tipping point. On that day last July, representatives of three ministries – the ministry of electronics and information technology, the ministry of home affairs, and the department of telecommunication – refused to attend a meeting of the parliamentary standing committee on information technology, clearly a contempt of the House. BJP members also stayed away, ensuring that there was no quorum for the meeting on citizens’ data security and privacy.

Until this point, the SC had not warmed up to the issue. Immediately after this, it took up the PIL filed by veteran journalists N Ram and Sasi Kumar seeking an independent probe into the snooping which they said abridged several fundamental rights and appeared to represent an attempt to infiltrate, attack and destabilise independent institutions that act as critical pillars of our democratic set-up. At this stage, too, the government used the ‘national security’ card, only to be told off by the SC.

These are no ordinary times and this is no ordinary case. The party in power has neutralised the countervailing power of the constitutional authorities, the autonomous institutions and the media. The extensive use of the deadly spyware here is an assault on not just individual privacy but the very foundations of democracy. It appears that the government is prepared to use all the dirty tricks in the book to undermine its critics and opponents even as we celebrate 75 years of Independence. The Editors Guild of India had rightly called it “a moment that demands deep introspection and inquiry into the kind of society we are heading towards and how far we may have veered away from the democratic values enshrined in our Constitution”.

Several acclaimed writers, journalists, lawyers, academicians and activists had collectively sought Chief Justice N V Ramana’s ‘immediate intervention’ in the matter. Among other things, they want to know the justification for such targeting and the Constitutional authority which vetted the cases. They have also raised the critical need for judicial oversight of all interception orders, as in the UK. Non-government organisations such as the Software Freedom Law Centre and The Internet Freedom Foundation have been pushing for surveillance reform and a judicial oversight in our intelligence framework. Such dual-use technology, including facial recognition, is open to misuse by totalitarian regimes or by autocratic leaders. And the citizens literally pay the price, which is quite steep; Pegasus costs an estimated Rs 1.5cr per phone.

Let us not get distracted by the din over the latest revelations. The relevant question then and now is the same: Will we have to use Pegasus to detect Pegasus?

Also Read: Pegasus spyware: Undeterred NSO Group says criticisms ‘hypocritical’, blacklisting by US will be rescinded