The recent news out of The Pegasus project, a global collaborative journalistic investigation into the NSO Group of Israel has sent shockwaves across the country. This project was based on the leak of more than 50,000 phone numbers selected as targets by clients of NSO since 2016 as offered by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based non profit journalism organisation and Amnesty International to this group of 17 global media houses that includes The Wire in India. The Wire said over 300 Indian phone numbers - including those belonging to major opposition leaders, two current cabinet ministers, bureaucrats and senior journalists were potential targets for hacking. Shockingly the verified list also included phone numbers of the lady staffer of former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi against whom the lady staffer had alleged about the sexual harassment against Gogoi. The phones of her husband and her brothers-in-law alongwith her were targeted with the spy software around April 2019.
NSO’s flagship product, Pegasus is a spying software or spyware that targets iPhones and Android devices. Once a phone is infected, a Pegasus operator can secretly extract chats, photos, emails and location data or activate microphones and cameras without the user knowing. Pegasus works by infiltrating phones via 'zero-click' attacks - which do not require interaction from the phone's owner - on or Apple's iMessage or WhatsApp, which is, by some margin, the world's most widely-used instant messaging service, with 400 million users in India alone. In 2019, the popular messaging app WhatsApp said 1,400 users in 20 countries, including Indian journalists and activists, had been targeted by Pegasus in May that year. NSO maintains that it sells its technologies solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of “vetted governments” for the purpose of “preventing criminal and terror acts”.
Many questions arise thus. Since NSO sold them to only governments and their agencies, so private individuals couldn’t have done such an exercise. This is not only a serious violation of privacy but also a criminal act as there is a due process under which surveillance can be done in this country. Further the cost of such a software and its installation is very high for any group to indulge in. Moreover the profiled targets as seen in India also show towards a certain pattern and people will draw their conclusions despite the government’s denial. All these lead towards a situation where the pedestal of our open democracy is being subjected to a major challenge.
First, because there is a lot of difference between "phone tapping" and the complete hijacking of smartphones that can be achieved by a spyware like Pegasus. Partly this is because smartphones at this moment in time are much more integral to people's lives and their professions than telephones in the past. While people used to be careful about what they said on landline telephones, they had more confidence in mobile phones till the Neera Radia tapes incident of 2008-09. But now, switching from WhatsApp to Signal or Telegram makes one feel safe but even that is not complete. As unaccountable invasions of privacy go, spyware on a smartphone is far more intrusive and indefensible than old-style phone-tapping used to be.
Second, because of what can be done with spyware and malware - not just the reputational damage that can be caused by selective leaking, but the laying of a false trail of criminality and conspiracy. Selective leaking or the threat thereof can be used for blackmail, controlling and intimidating independent authorities including bureaucrats and even judges. Framing people for crimes is even worse. A US based cyber forensic company have indicated that such false and planted evidence has been used to detain activists under draconian anti-terrorism laws in the Bhima Koregaon case. If Pegasus had not exploded into public view, we can have no doubt that more such accusations would have been made in order to lock up dissenters. Even now, it is likely that whichever agency bought the Pegasus spyware, and whoever it answers to, is not completely deterred. Such false accusations may well continue to be made and there is a growing number of people who would continue to believe in such manipulated falsehood.
Thirdly agencies and political leadership today brazen out to such situations instead of ordering investigations by independent institutions. The Union Home Minister Amit Shah over twitter said that the accusations of snooping are "conspiracies" meant to "derail India's development trajectory". The new IT minister Ashwani Vaishnaw and his predecessor Ravi Shankar Prasad were quick to respond to say nothing of such snooping has happened and this was a campaign against the country. Shri Vaishnaw mentioned in parliament that there had been no "unauthorised" snooping and India has "robust institutions" and "time-tested processes." Interestingly the new IT minister, whose phone number was, apparently, also in the Pegasus database - stopped short of outright denial. Shri Prasad went on to claim with a straight face that this may be "revenge for the way that India has handled Covid" not realising that everyone remembers how the government was caught unprepared during the second wave last April and so many nations had to help India with oxygen arrangements and medicines.
The fact remains that today technology has started impacting democracy and many of the tools specially spyware are becoming a menace. People are being violated of their privacy brazenly and respect for law is dwindling. This is creating a situation where unaccountable spying is no longer abuse of power, but being projected as the righteous, patriotic and legitimate use of power. Former PM Chandra Shekhar’s interview in 1990 accusing his Janata Dal rival V P Singh of tapping his phone was a major scandal that shook the political system. Likewise in the year 1988, when Ramakrishna Hegde, Chief Minister of Karnataka was accused of a similar crime, he had to resign. Public response to such an abuse of authority was sharp and negative. Today almost seems like an accepted fact of politics and public protests are almost missing.
This time a few thousand phones may have been targeted in India and a few hundred eventually hacked. It will not stay that way. It will escalate up being tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of phones, and an entire army of unsupervised and unaccountable snoopers armed with the latest global technology that keeps on getting worrisome day by day. Surveillance technology is opening up possibilities where law and watch on legal procedures often fail to detect or act. That is where checks and balance from the executive, legislature and judiciary has to be there to preserve democracy.