Edit & Opinion

PEGASUS & India: International Irritants

The Pegasus controversy has rocked Indian Parliament and shocked the country. People are wondering why would a popularly elected government snoop on the Opposition with the help of technology imported from a friendly country. Who is responsible? The Opposition is finger pointing at the government who is denying it furiously until it is proved. A mercurial and unstoppable Member of Parliament from the ruling party has been threatening to expose whoever is involved in this shameful act. Also, a friendly country like Israel is under scanner for providing this tool. It raises question about transparency and decency in democracy.

The BJP launched a full-blown counter-offensive to deny the Opposition allegations on the Pegasus controversy. Home Minister Amit Shah on Monday said “disruptors and obstructors will not be able to derail India’s development trajectory through their (Opposition’s) conspiracies and the monsoon session will bear new fruits of progress”. He added that the facts and sequence of events are for the entire nation to see. In a statement, he declared, “Today, the monsoon session has started. In what seemed like a perfect cue, late last evening we saw a report that has been amplified by a few sections with only one aim — to do whatever is possible and humiliate India at the world stage, peddle the same old narratives about our nation and derail India’s development trajectory,” a few hours after Congress sought his resignation over the controversy.

The fact of the matter is, a spyware developed by an Israeli firm has been used for surveillance against politicians, journalists, human rights activists and business executives. Their smartphones were hacked to gather confidential information. It must, however, be noted that the developers of the Pegasus software, the NSO Group, originally had licenced it to governments to track terrorists and criminals.

How does it work? Pegasus is a spyware used to hack the handsets. The hackers can access the user’s data including passwords, contacts, calendar events, text messages and even live voice calls from messaging apps.

A global investigative project published on 18 July claiming that mobile phones of at least 300 Indians were targeted by the NSO group using its Pegasus spyware. Interestingly, the list includes BJP Ministers, Opposition leaders, top lawyers, businessmen, rights activists and journalists. Pegasus has a history of snooping. It made headlines in 2019 when Facebook-owned WhatsApp confirmed that the spyware was used to target around 1,400 users including journalists and human right activists in India. WhatsApp claims to have fixed its software troubles that allowed Pegasus to penetrate a mobile phone. But Pegasus found other techniques of spying on individuals’ mobile phones

There are victims in other countries too of Pegasus surveillance technology. An investigation led by the Paris-based non-profit journalism group Forbidden Stories had reported that Pegasus spyware had been used to hack smartphones of journalists, government officials and human rights activists.

Also, Amnesty International released a forensic analysis of the alleged targeting that showed Amazon Web Services was hosting NSO infrastructure. Amazon responded saying it had shut down NSO accounts that were “confirmed to be supporting the reported hacking activity”. The same Amnesty International reported that Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was the potential target for Pegasus. Amnesty also had identified a US company, the Digital Ocean.

These reports raise the scope of alleged abuses of which the NSO Group has been implicated since 2016. The consortium members have linked individuals, including over 600 politicians and government officials and 189 journalists to the more than 1,000 numbers across 50 countries put on the list. The largest share was in Mexico and the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia is reported to be among NSO clients.

Back home, Prime Minister Modi is accused of ‘treason’ over Pegasus spyware scandal while the Opposition accuses him of compromising national security. The allegations and counter-allegations are flying thick and fast after the revelations that dozens of Indians were potential targets of snooping by Israeli-made spyware. The Indian media reported that Modi’s main rival, former Congress President Rahul Gandhi, was among dozens of Indian politicians, activists and government critics identified as potential targets of the Pegasus spyware.

“Is spying on India’s security forces, judiciary, cabinet ministers, Opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi, journalists and other activities through a foreign entity’s spyware not treason and an inexcusable dilution of national security?” Congress spokesman Randeep Surjewala roared at a press conference in New Delhi on Monday. The Congress demanded an investigation into the roles of Modi and his closest aide Amit Shah, in the scandal. “Our first demand is the immediate sacking of Minister of Home and Internal Security Amit Shah and a probe into the role of the Prime Minister in the matter,” Surjewala said.

The internet and social media have been a bone of contention in India for a long time. The government has been targeting Twitter and Facebook for being partisan, attacking the government and giving more space and credence to the Opposition. But now, the shoe seems to be on the other foot. The government is being accused of using a foreign software to spy on people.

To recall the steps recently taken by the Government of India, a Cyber Surakshit Bharat Initiative was launched in 2018 with an aim to spread awareness about cybercrime and building capacity for safety measures for Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs) and frontline IT staff across all government departments. Second, the launching of National Cyber security Coordination Centre (NCCC) in  2017. It was developed to scan internet traffic and communication metadata (which are little snippets of information hidden inside each communication) coming into the country to detect real-time cyber threats. Third, Cyber Swachhta Kendra was set up in 2017. This platform was introduced for internet users to clean their computers and devices by wiping out viruses and malware. Fourth, Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C), which was recently inaugurated by the government. Fifth, the National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal has also been launched pan India. Sixth, Computer Emergency Response Team -India (CERT-IN). It is the nodal agency which deals with cybersecurity threats like hacking and phishing.

Moreover, there have also been legislations passed: Information Technology Act, 2000 and Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019. The first one gives authority to the government to monitor news and information that are harmful to the national interest. The second gives the rights to the citizens to defend their data.

Despite all the laws and systems in place, why would a government in any open democracy snoop on its citizens. This shows insecurity and tendencies of totalitarianism. There must be a coordinated international effort to check such anti-democratic acts. Israel has dubious distinction of using surveillance and exporting its tools and expertise. It must guard against the international outrage it may incur; it already has on how it deals with Palestine. Be that as it may, the onus is on government of India to punish the guilty, and if anyone in the government has indulged in this misadventure, they must also be put in the dock. Let it not pass like a storm in a tea cup.

 

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Dr D K Giri

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