An attack on citizens
On Sunday evening, an international network of media organisations, assisted by a network of international civil society organisations, broke a story about State surveillance as a part of a series called The Pegasus Project. In India, The Wire reported that the phone numbers of 40 journalists (including three from this newspaper), two ministers (including the new minister for information technology, Ashwini Vaishnaw), three Opposition figures (including Rahul Gandhi), political consultant-turned-politician Prashant Kishor, officials (including former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa), a Supreme Court judge, and business figures were on a list of potential targets for surveillance at different points in the last four years. The phone devices of some individuals, subjected to forensic analysis, indicated the presence of an infection or an attempted hack. If the allegations of widespread surveillance are true, they represent an unacceptable and illegal invasion of the right to privacy, right to liberty, and the right to dignity of all those targeted; the series also throw up deeply disturbing questions about the source of the hack and represents a subversion of India’s constitutional democracy.
Developed by the Israeli firm NSO, Pegasus is an extraordinarily sophisticated technology that can, once it infects a phone, gain access to calls (including on encrypted platforms), contacts, app passwords, browsing history, microphone and camera which can capture off-line conversations, and even plant evidence, as alleged in the Bhima Koregaon case. To be sure, the mere presence of a number does not indicate a hack. The list is only of potential targets. Forensic analysis has been limited, and also inconclusive in certain cases. The Government of India (GOI) has denied allegations of illegal surveillance, and claimed all interceptions are as per law and due process — though it does leave room open to ask if GOI has purchased Pegasus and deployed it. NSO, which maintains that it sells the software only to “vetted governments” for countering terror and crime, termed the allegation baseless, and claimed that the 50,000 listed numbers (internationally) may be for other purposes. But its chief executive, Shalev Hulio also said that allegations of misuse were concerning and if true, violate the relationship of trust with customers, ie governments.
The gravity of the allegations and its implications for Indian democracy are enormous. If the Indian government has done this, it is a betrayal of the constitutional compact with citizens. If another government has done it, it is a cyber attack on India and its citizens. Either way, there must be a truly independent judicial enquiry to get to the truth and hold those responsible for this violation of fundamental rights accountable.
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