The politics and ethics of surveillance

Updated on Jul 29, 2021 06:48 PM IST

There can be no rationalisation for hacking. But the government seems to believe it can ride out the storm

This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group which features Pegasus spyware, on display in Paris on July 21, 2021. (AFP) PREMIUM
This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group which features Pegasus spyware, on display in Paris on July 21, 2021. (AFP)

Long before Narendra Modi held sway, there were the omnipotent Nehru-Gandhis. In his book, Open secrets, India intelligence unveiled, former Intelligence Bureau joint director MK Dhar writes of Indira Gandhi ordering snooping on her daughter-in-law Maneka Gandhi and reveals how Rajiv Gandhi’s government was spying on President Giani Zail Singh, forcing him to conduct all personal meetings in Rashtrapati Bhavan’s verdant Mughal Gardens and not in his office.

So why the fuss, argue Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters, over unverified allegations that the central government was hacking mobile phones using Israeli spyware. Well, because not only is the typical whataboutery a lamentable alibi that rationalises possible illegal acts, but it fails to recognise crucial differences between snooping then and hacking now.

In a previous time, the tracking was less intrusive and limited in scope: The jasoos (detective) assigned to follow a target was a visible entity who could be held accountable when caught. If a landline was bugged, the recorded conversations were not a 24x7 trail. But now, when the smartphone is an intimate and inseparable extension of mind and body, the dangers of hacking the phone involve a near total compromise of a person’s life and work. And with a shadowy, military-graded Pegasus-like technology infiltrating the phone in real time, where does one even begin fixing accountability?

The Pegasus investigation claims that at least 300 phones in India were seen as potential targets for hacking. Truth is, even one person’s phone being hacked constitutes a prima facie unlawful act unless there is a compelling national security threat at stake. When the scale reaches the point where it allegedly covers political rivals, Union ministers, journalists, judges, human rights activists, election commissioners, businessmen, even scientists, then there is reason to believe that it isn’t just individual privacy rights that are being violated, but constitutional democracy itself is being disfigured.

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And yet, the government has chosen to brazen it out with denials, a refusal to debate the issue in Parliament or allow a court-monitored probe. Why? Primarily because a brute parliamentary majority has convinced the political leadership that its dominance can’t be challenged by a weak Opposition and any noise inside Parliament isn’t going to have an echo effect outside it.

Moreover, the absence of greater civil society indignation suggests an ominous normalisation of hacking and its likely consequences. It reveals a disturbing willingness to acquiesce in governmental actions which, if proven true, reveal a criminal abuse of power.

It is this numbing of the collective conscience of the Indian middle class that the government is counting on to tide over the Pegasus crisis. At one level, the passivity reflects the preoccupations of a majority of the population. In an extraordinary period of Covid-19 and economic hardship, a hacking controversy may not resonate. Somehow, the right to privacy doesn’t seem to register as strongly as other personal freedoms.

At another level, the mixed response mirrors the hyper-polarised times in which public opinion is more sharply divided than ever before. With the prime minister elevated into a cult-like figure by his vast army of supporters, any criticism of his leadership is instantly targeted as “anti-national”. Not surprisingly, the BJP has described the hacking allegations as a “foreign conspiracy” by Left-wing organisations designed to derail the monsoon session. Nothing could be more illogical. Why would a French-based non-governmental organisation coordinate a global expose into spyware hacking across countries simply to coincide its revelations with India’s parliamentary cycle?

Truth is, the government knows that a court-monitored investigation could lead to further embarrassment by exposing the nature of State surveillance. Which might explain why the government has tied itself up in knots while refusing to answer a central question. Did it have any contractual dealings with the Israeli company, NSO Group Technologies on Pegasus? Any admission would amount to virtually conceding that government agencies are guilty of unlawfully hacking phones in contravention of Information Technology (IT) Act provisions.

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The very idea of being subject to institutional scrutiny appears anathema to the government. Its style of functioning has been marked by a resolute defiance of established procedures for accountability or willingness to accept mistakes. Dodge, deny, distract are the three Ds of its crisis management mantra — don’t concede that oxygen shortages led to Covid-19 deaths, insist the migrant crisis last year was exaggerated, don’t acknowledge job losses and a faltering economy, and reject proof of Chinese border intrusions.

Why would the government now choose to debate hacking charges in Parliament, or indeed, agree to any judicial oversight? Pegasus was, after all, a mythical winged horse. Perhaps snooping and hacking too are mythical concepts.

Post-script: Long before Delhi 2021, there was Gandhinagar 2008-09. As revealed in my book, 2019: How Modi won India, senior Gujarat IPS officers were called in for a demo of a sophisticated Israeli spyware machine that could record all mobile conversations. We don’t know whether the machine was eventually procured or used but from that day, most officers began keeping two phones — one for official communication and one for private use.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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    Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist, author and TV news presenter. His book 2014: The election that changed India is a national best seller that has been translated into half a dozen languages. He tweets as @sardesairajdeep

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