When Bernstein and Woodward broke the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post in 1972 and nailed the US president Richard Nixon for illegally creating a wiretapping network to serve his own petty political interests, a large section of the media in the USA fell silent. Watergate was a dirty word that didn’t merit a mention. Some uttered mere whispers and were threatened and silenced.
It is then no surprise that in the wake of India’s Watergate moment, a vast section of the media feels obliged to keep mum. As horrifying accounts emerge – of how journalists, activists, politicians, those holding institutional positions and businesspersons in India have been put under a far more insidious and intrusive surveillance through Pegasus spyware – a section of Indian media is not just silent. It has gone head over heels in either denying or justifying the global scam with an enormous peppering of lies, enabling the government to build its counter narrative on the edifices of those lies. That has been the typical way in which the present Indian regime functions but the issue at stake here is grave and impacts an entire nation – far more than the Covid-19 crisis does.
What exactly is the Pegasus spyware controversy and why is it so significant a challenge? Pegasus is a spyware developed by an Israeli surveillance firm, NSO, which deals directly only with governments around the globe. The program infects the target’s smart phone with a zero-click technology that requires no interaction. In short, the target’s phone is infected with malware without him or her having knowledge about it. Unlike other phishing attacks that require some degree of interaction, Pegasus allows the NSO client not just complete control of the target’s device but through it also the complete control over his or her life. It can not only access all the data, e-mails, photos stored in the phone. It can also use the microphone and camera remotely, even when the phone is not in use, to spy on the target round the clock. The NSO, which claims that the software has been developed to help governments to create a surveillance network for counter terrorism, has created a sophisticated clandestine operation in which the software, after being detected, cannot be traced back to the government using it. The NSO, however, admits to the likelihood of possible misuse of the software by its clients and has initiated an inquiry into the matter.
The Pegasus Project, a collaborative investigation that involves more than 80 journalists from 17 news organisations in 10 countries, including The Wire from India, is coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. The consortium found that 50,000 phone numbers of people were of interest to clients of NSO Group and clarified that it is not necessary that all the numbers appearing in the list had already been targeted with the spyware. According to the findings of the Pegasus Project, 1,000 people spanning over 50 countries whose numbers were on the list have been identified. Forensic analysis of 37 of the phones showed there had been attempted and successful hacks.
The shocking list includes political leaders, sitting prime ministers, institutional heads, journalists and civil society activists. This rampant and arbitrary use of the technology evokes doubts about the purpose for which at least some of the client countries used the spyware.
Was Indian government one of the clients? So far, there is no clear answer. The troll army of the BJP and its loyalist media is busy circulating the narrative of “myth of the list” and “denials of Amnesty International and even NSO” – based on untruths or half-truths – and even justifying the need for surveillance of citizens. The government is happily following, walking this path of ambiguous denial paved out for it by its loyalists. A Trojan horse has been unleashed in multiples and injected through mobile devices of selectively targeted individuals. As this clandestine secret gets unraveled, an army of trolls and lapdog media has been let loose to paper over the revelations.
Even as the shocked citizenry and an opposition, finding its voice, is demanding answers, no one in the government has been able to tell whether they procured the spyware or not. There are only two plausible explanations – either they did it or some other country’s government put Indian citizens under surveillance. The former is a grave threat to democracy as it signals an abject dilution of fundamental rights and civil liberties of the citizens. It also amounts to violation of the vital right to privacy of an individual. The basic function of a government in a democracy is not just to govern but also to be accountable to the public and transparent before it. The Pegasus snoopgate conveys that it is the public that is required to be transparent before the government. If the government lorded over this invasive method of surveillance that gives state-sponsored agents free access into bedrooms and bathrooms of unsuspecting targets, how much money and under which budgetary provision was spent on it and which intelligence agency was monitoring this surveillance. Reports have pointed out that US $100,000 was spent to keep one person under surveillance. Who were the people under surveillance and why were they surveilled and what purpose has been achieved through this squandering of state public exchequer? The government must give forthright answers.
If it is the second proposition – another country surveilling some Indian citizens – it is a major security threat to the country. The list of targets includes a sitting minister, a former Chief Election Commissioner, members of judiciary including the then Chief Justice of India and top politicians. There is no telling how far up the ladder this Trojan horse can be injected. If it is the case of another country snooping on unsuspecting Indians, it should have brought any responsible government on its toes and ordered an investigation, even beseeched the world powers. That this government is instead burying its head like an ostrich in the sand either signals the incompetence and inability of the government to comprehend serious issues or that it knows who is behind it and is fine with it.
Is it going to introduce a measure of transparency, like several other named countries that have announced a probe in the Pegasus spyware issue? Or will it continue to wage a war against its citizens with Trojan horses and an army of lapdog media?