Pegasus and the threat of an Orwellian State
The Pegasus spyware scandal is an example of one of the gravest threats against humanity: The misuse of technology by over-mighty states. Russian novelist and critic, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel titled We, imagined a 26th century utopia wherein the individuality of individuals had been crushed by the State. People lived in glass houses so that the police could see what they were doing all the time, except for one hour a day when they were allowed to draw the curtains so that they could make love. The philosophy that guided society was “happiness and freedom are incompatible”.
Zamyatin said the novel was “a warning against the twofold danger which threatens humanity, the hypertrophic power of the machines and the hypertrophic power of the state”. Surveillance — the ability to spy on opponents, whether they be politicians, activists, academics, journalists, or anyone who influences others — is essential to govern a totalitarian or Big Brother State. Pegasus is the latest development in sophisticated, highly intrusive, and in the wrong hands, threatening technology.
Its targeted electronic surveillance is capable of recording calls, copying messages, seeing emails, and even filming. It is intended for use by governments. NSO Group, the Israeli company which owns Pegasus, has stated that it “sells its technologies solely to law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies of vetted governments”. So, as Zamyatin states, Pegasus is an addition to the potentially hypertrophic power of the State.
Zamyatin wrote the novel between 1920 and 1921. The horror of his novel was realised in his own country a few years later. After Leon Trotsky was exiled in 1929, Stalin established a regime in which there was contempt for truth. History was rewritten, freedom of speech was abolished, and a reign of terror was established.
George Orwell’s novel, 1984, is a more widely known example of an imaginary State which has robbed its citizens of their individuality and their ability to recognise truth. For citizens, the only truth is what the government tells them is true. The anti-hero of the book, Winston Smith, is eventually convinced that two plus two equals five.
Although Orwell’s fears were not realised as rapidly and obviously as Zamyatin’s, 1984 has had a tremendous influence. Tens of millions of copies of the book have been sold. Much of the vocabulary describing totalitarianism is taken from 1984 — including big brother, doublethink, newspeak, thought police, unperson and so on.
In 2013, when Edward Snowden leaked highly classified documents from the National Security Agency revealing massive surveillance operations, he said, “Orwell warned us of the danger of this kind of information.” At the time, there were comparisons with 1984 in the press and sales of the book boomed. Maybe the Pegasus revelations will drive us back to Orwell, to remind us of the Orwellian threat we face from the increasing sophistication of State surveillance.
So, what can be done to defend our liberty? In the short-term, we should protect ourselves from the possible misuse of Pegasus by demanding to know how it has infected Indian devices, and what the government’s role in this has been. In the longer term, it is essential that the institutions whose role is to prevent governments from becoming too mighty are sufficiently robust to do their job and the laws governing surveillance strict. These days, when nationalist autocrats are claiming that anti-nationals or foreign threats justify Orwellian surveillance, a democracy such as India should not be fobbed off with those clichés.
Above all, we should remember the adage, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. When Orwell lay dying, he explained his fundamental purpose in writing 1984 saying, “the moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare is a simple one. Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”
The views expressed are personal
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