Pegasus Project: ‘An attack on democracy’

Centre refuses to acknowledge its role in spyware scandal

Politics

July 21, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Pegasus Project: ‘An attack on democracy’

Prominent politicians like Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, journalists from media houses like The Wire and numerous civil rights activists have been targeted by the Pegasus spyware

Even as several leaders around the world denounce the reported use of spyware Pegasus by many governments, the Indian government, while not denying its role, calls its reported use an international conspiracy to derail democracy.

Within hours of emergence of latest scandal surrounding the use of Pegasus, a spyware developed by Israeli company NSO, while the French justice ministry opened an investigation into it, the Indian government was dodging the issue, terming it an attempt to discredit the government.

Even though the Pegasus scandal involves spying on 50,000 telephones, mainly in 10 countries, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has tried to project the revelation by an international consortium of media houses and civil liberty organisations as a plot against India. Pushing the narrative that the Pegasus Project is simply a conspiracy, the new IT minister Aishwini Vaishnaw, who ironically is on the target list himself, calls it “an attempt to malign the Indian democracy.”

Surprisingly, 14 Heads of State including King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Iraq’s Barham Salih, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa and Pakistan’s Imran Khan figured in the list that contained phone numbers for more than 600 government officials and politicians from 34 countries.

The scandal raises important questions on data privacy and attempts by governments to curb free speech and media as well as opposition parties. In India, critics say that by curbing journalistic and political free speech, India is heading towards an authoritarian rule rather than a democratic government.

The 1000 targetted persons in India represent a melange of backgrounds – prominent politicians like Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, media houses like The Wire as well as journalists from nearly a dozen media outlets, besides numerous civil rights activists and even ministers and members of the ruling BJP itself.

Rahul Gandhi and Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala have strongly condemned the BJP for its silence, calling the incident “treason” and an “attack on democracy,” and demanded an independent probe.

International outrage, Indian dismissal

Though the Indian government has tried to brush the scandal away, it has led to an outrage across the world. Such a large-scale, multinational and targeted hacking has summoned global rebuke and comparisons to the 1972 Watergate Scandal, when the Republican President Richard Nixon tried to spy on opposition Democrats.

UN human rights chief Michele Bachelet has called this misuse of surveillance technology “alarming,” urging governments to cease such invasions of privacy, while President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen said, “Freedom of the press is a core value of the European Union”, adding that if the allegations were true, “it is completely unacceptable”.

Countries like France have immediately taken action, with the Paris prosecutor’s office launching a probe into Pegasus, investigating charges such as violation of privacy and illegal use of data.

Privacy and rights groups like Amnesty or Citizen Lab as well as organisations like Reporters Sans Frontieres have said they will take legal action against those accused of ordering surveillance.

But, instead of taking a similarly proactive approach, the Indian government continues to deflect blame and responsibility, with Union Home Minister Amit Shah suggesting the international expose was simply an attempt by the Opposition to discredit BJP, stating “the timing of the selective leaks, the disruptions…Aap Chronology Samajhiye! (understand the timing).” This view has also been supported by certain Indians who are unsure of how such a large-scale breach could have occurred.

“Some believe there is a counter narrative to what has happened because of the timing of the release. Just when the Parliament session was to start, they came out and flagged these names, which gives a bit of a hint that this could be something being brought out now for a different purpose,” says Supratim Chakraborty, a partner at Khaitan & Co, a firm specialising in data privacy laws and cybersecurity.

NSO has confirmed that their spyware is sold exclusively to “vetted governments” around the world to combat terrorism and other serious crimes. However, the Centre still refuses to clearly state that the Indian government has not used Pegasus, only stating that any monitoring that has taken place has been done as per due process of law.

“Even if they deny it, it does not mean it hasn’t happened. Reports have come out from reputed organisations prove that surveillance of Indians has taken place, and if NSO is only selling to government clients, then the next logical question should be whether there is there a foreign government that is spying on Indian citizens and intruding on the privacy and security of the country. Either way, someone needs to be held accountable, as it is the duty of the Indian government to take steps to ensure the safety of its citizens,” Anushka Jain, an Associate Counsel of Internet Freedom Foundation, an NGO that fights for digital freedom, tells Media India Group.

Since 2014, India has seen an increase in curbs on citizens’ rights to free speech, with harsh legal or social ramifications against those speaking out. A recent example was that of journalist Shyam Meera Singh, who was terminated from Aaj Tak (a news channel belonging to India Today group) on July 19, for his tweets against PM Modi.

This is not the first time that suspicious spyware or illegal hacking has been found on an activist’s device in India. During his interrogation by the NIA in 2020, the late Jesuit priest Stan Swamy had mentioned at least three instances of incriminating documents being planted on his laptop, which were eventually used to arrest him for the Bhima Koregaon case. Rona Wilson, another accused, also reported that his device was infected with malware in 2016, through which a hacker planted false evidence. These claims were backed by independent digital forensics studies done by reputed institutions.

“There is a spread of authoritarianism happening in the country, now we have come to know that even reporters who may be criticising the government or opposition party leaders who are obviously against the ruling party are also being targeted. This is very problematic in a country like India where our democratic ideals are something we have held close to our hearts for the last 70 years,” says IFF’s Jain.

One of the most shocking revelations on Pegasus’s target list was that of a former staffer of the Supreme Court who had been fired after accusing the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, now a BJP member of Parliament, of sexual harassment in 2019. The report revealed that even her family’s phones were put under Pegasus surveillance the same week her allegations had been reported. Activists say India cannot call itself a democracy while crushing the voice of its citizens.

“Ordinary people are afraid to voice their views or criticise the government, which they have every right to do, because they fear that they will be trolled or subjected to harassment,” Jain adds.

However, Chakraborty, the lawyer with Khaitan & Co., believes that there is undoubtedly a need for some level of surveillance even in a democratic country, saying that digital companies like WhatsApp usually fight back against such rules because of the humongous cost in changing their existing systems. He emphasises balance between transparency and regulation, and the need for a symbiotic relationship with the government in order to prevent abuse and unlawful breach of privacy.

“Some kind of surveillance is needed, especially in an increasingly digitised world where cyber attacks can be more deadly than hand-to-hand combat, and not everything can be out in the open as it can be counterproductive to the security of the country,” says Chakraborty.

He explains that until more details come out about the Pegasus Project, it is not clear under the country’s current legal parameters whether appropriate litigation can be taken against the perpetrators of the hacking.

“There is a huge demand from society that there should be some kind of a probe done appropriately to figure out more about this. Indian laws are still at a nascent stage, so we need to work together with the government in order to scale up to the European GDPR law (General Data Protection Regulation),” he adds.

Experts believe that there is an urgent need for amendment in digital privacy laws because despite the existing guardrails under the Information Technology Act, especially in the digital sector, laws start becoming redundant after a period of time, which means there is a constant requirement to revamp, overhaul and tweak the rules.

“If the government wants to regulate social media, we are not against that, but it has to be done in a lawful manner. What we have been asking for continuously is for surveillance reform to happen in India. The issue is that we are unable to respond to this advancement in technology with advancement in laws, which is how the gap is being created. And because of this gap, there is a misuse happening in these situations,” says Jain, adding, “the type of hacking and interception which has taken place in the Pegasus Project is actually an offence under the IT Act.”

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