Pegasus is a spyware that helps spies hack into phones and access any personal information or location of any individual. It is developed by NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm. It blights iPhones and Android devices to enable the operators of the device to excerpt messages, personal photos, and emails, record calls, and secretly activate microphones without the consent of the device owners.
This matter first came to light in 2019, when the Israeli firm was sued by WhatsApp in a U.S court. In July 2021, it was revealed by Amnesty International, who with 13 other media outlets across the globe, released a report showing how the spyware was used to spy hundreds of individuals, which included Indians. Though several claims had been made by the NSO that they only sell their spyware to governments, none of the nations has come forward to accept the claims. According to an investigation into an immense data leak, human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers worldwide have been targeted by authoritarian governments using this hacking software sold by the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group.
Recently, there have been traces of Pegasus found on the smartphones of an opposition political strategist, Prashant Kishor, and seven other Indian journalists during a global investigation by a media consortium into using the Israeli-made surveillance tool. Several prominent Indian public figures, including Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi, a former election commissioner and a well-connected businessman, also appeared on a global list of 50,000 people who had allegedly been monitored by NSO Group’s clients since 2016.
“It is clear what has occurred was a crime, but you have seen absolutely no attempts by the central government to investigate it.” — Raman Jit Singh Chima, Access Now.
In July, the central government dismissed the allegations of snooping with the IT ministry, claimed there had been no “unauthorized surveillance.” Pegasus-maker NSO Group, an Israeli firm, maintained government agencies strictly used its spyware to combat terrorism and organized crime. But things haven’t been good in the Parliament with the Opposition taking the lead. The government continued to refuse to discuss the Pegasus issue in Parliament. Many officials of the Union home and IT ministries ignored the call by the parliamentary committee on IT over the issue.
What further incensed the Opposition was that the government pushed through bills seeing no scope for debate while ignoring the Pegasus issue. Among these bills were the Tribunals Reforms Bill, the Essential Defence Services Bill, and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Bill. This eventually led to the Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, hosting a meeting to discuss the Pegasus issue, attended by 100 MP’s from 13 different parties. What came as a surprise was that, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ally Nitish Kumar, the Janata Dal-United (JDU) leader, and the Bihar chief minister, too, called for an investigation into the Pegasus revelations. His predecessor, Jitan Ram Manjhi, echoed his demand.
This finally resulted in the Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana, on August 5, hear a bunch of petitions filed by activists, lawyers, journalists, and politicians over the Pegasus row. They demanded a probe into allegations of prying following the report that was released by Amnesty International in July.
On 5th August 2021, the Supreme Court described the allegations of surveillance through the use of the Pegasus spyware as “serious” and wondered why no one had filed an FIR if they believed that their phones had been hacked. It was also pointed out that these allegations first came to light in 2019.
Chief Justice of India, N V Ramana, along with Justice Surya Kant, while hearing the eight petitions seeking an independent investigation into the matter, said: “No doubt, the allegations are serious if the reports are true.”
No notice was issued to the Center by the bench but instead, they asked the parties first to supply copies of their petitions to the government counsel, after which it would hear the matter again on August 10. As most of the petitions were based on news reports, the bench indicated that there should be something more definite to set the legal process in motion.
Israel has always been known to be a pre-eminent cyber-power with top-end surveillance proficiencies. And its companies, like NSO Group, often formed by experts of the intelligence world, have been among those to commercialize the techniques. The NSO Group says they only sell their spyware to be used against grave offenders and terrorists. But the matter is how you define those categories.
Many authoritarian countries often declare journalists, dissenters, and human rights activists as criminals or national security threats, making them worthy of indiscreet surveillance. There has been limited or no accountability and oversight on how the authoritative aptitudes are utilized in many of these countries.
The spread of encryption has increased the drive for governments to induce inside any individual’s devices. When phone calls were the primary means of communication, a telecoms company might be ordered to wiretap the conversation (which once meant attaching wires to the line). But now, the conversations are often encrypted, which means one needs to get to the device itself to determine what was said. And gadgets also transfer a much richer treasure trove of data.
All of this together creates pools of information and data that companies can use – but which hackers can steal and states can seek to tap into. Some potentials are now on sale to everyone. The other form of spyware is for sale to the anxious and apprehensive who want to check on their family’s whereabouts.
What all of this implies, is that gradually we are stepping into a world in which we can all become someone’s spies – but can equally all be spied on.
Sidra Fatima is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Malaika M Khan