By BA and Venkatesh Sundaram
The attempts to browbeat journalists and activists in India and around the world by using sophisticated methods such as Pegasus software need to be roundly condemned.
Source of image: https://theprint.in/tech/is-my-phone-at-risk-how-the-pegasus-spyware-works/701981/
Recently, the Supreme Court of India appointed an independent expert technical committee overseen by a former apex court judge, Justice R.V. Raveendran, to examine allegations that the government used an Israeli spyware, Pegasus, to snoop on its own citizens. Smartphones infected with Pegasus are essentially turned into pocket spying devices, allowing the user to read the target’s messages, look through their photos, track their location and even turn on their camera without them knowing. It is to be noted that Pegasus supplies its snooping software only to governments, as mandated by the Israeli government.
Citing reports that the snooping exercise had widely impacted the rights to privacy and freedom of speech of ordinary citizens, the Supreme Court said it could not just stand there and ignore allegations that Pegasus affected the individual rights of the citizenry as a whole The Court said it did not want to wander into any “political thicket” (meaning perhaps not exceed its’ brief and transgress into areas which are the purview of the executive). But, it said, India cannot remain mute in the face of the allegations when other countries across the globe have taken them seriously and kick-started efforts to know the truth. In other words, the allegations of snooping on activists and journalists are indeed serious and appear to be true, and the judicial institutions in India should not appear to be lacking in efforts to ‘uncover the truth’, as other countries already have.
A few days later, US authorities on Wednesday put the Israeli maker of the Pegasus spyware on the list of restricted companies, saying that the firm supplied software used to target officials, activists, and journalists. The Biden administration has officially condemned the harassment and ‘extrajudicial surveillance’ of journalists and others in reaction to reports published by a consortium of news websites that Israeli company NSO Group’s spyware, Pegasus, was used for illegal hacking and surveillance of individuals, including in India. This is ironical indeed, coming from a government which has routinely attacked other countries merely because they did not conform to the US government’s world view. Only a few years ago, it blatantly invaded Iraq and carried out a regime change there on entirely cooked up premises of that country’s government having dangerous Weapons of Mass Destruction (which were never found!).
Previously, the US government has backed some of the most repressive regimes – ranging from the Shah of Iran to Marcos in the Philippines to Pinochet in Chile. In fact, the criminal and abundant activities of the secret agencies of the US government in spying not only on foreign governments, but on activists and others fighting for justice in other countries and inside the US too, are well documented and in fact have been widely chronicled in print as well as in film. Nevertheless, it has sought to use the worldwide indignation against the targeting of activists and journalists among others through the Pegasus software, to shore up its’ credentials as a ‘protector of freedom of speech.
Not to be outdone, the Israeli government itself has distanced itself from Pegasus. On 6th November 2021, Israel’s foreign minister told a news conference in Jerusalem “NSO is a private company, it is not a governmental project and therefore even if it is designated, it has nothing to do with the policies of the Israeli government”. Now there is hardly any government in the world that has broken international law with as much callousness as the Israeli government has. The fact that it has to take this stance shows the extent of the indignation that the use of Pegasus software in intimidating and spying on journalists and activists worldwide.
The Indian government has historically always used its’ “intelligence agencies”, not merely against foreign entities which could be its enemies or rivals, but largely against political activists, students, union leaders, farmers’ leaders and others who oppose injustice and are fighting for just causes. They have used illegal and unjust methods, including phone tapping, surveillance, interception of mails, etc. to undermine the struggles for justice and also to intimidate those fighting or even merely reporting on them, like honest journalists. The methods they have used have become increasingly sophisticated. Pegasus software is only the latest in a long line of notorious criminal methods. Yet, it would not suit the Indian Government if it’s blatant use of unjust methods were to become well-known, just as it would not suit the US government if it’s shameful history of espionage and subterfuge against activists and others fighting for justice in the US and other countries were to become universally notorious.
The US Government has conveniently seized the opportunity to condemn and blacklist the maker of Pegasus to portray itself as a champion of human rights and freedom. Likewise, the Supreme Court of India is trying to show that it is concerned about the rights of citizens and their privacy and freedom by “making all attempts” to “get to the bottom” of the Pegasus scandal.
The attempts to browbeat journalists and activists in India and around the world by using sophisticated methods such as Pegasus software need to be roundly condemned. Nevertheless, freedom and justice-loving people in India and elsewhere must realise that Pegasus software is only the latest in a long list of methods which repressive governments have used over the centuries. Rather than being cowed down by Pegasus, they must strengthen their resolve to fight on!