Pegasus Is Around

5 mins read

Sumera B Reshi

Sun Tzu, a famous Chinese Strategist and an author of ‘Art of War’ devised the significance of espionage as an instrument of statecraft some 2,500 years ago. Since then, he was followed by numerous authors and strategists with a bit advanced use and application. In statecraft, espionage is considered an important part of a state’s security, defence and diplomacy. Throughout history, spying has been an integral part of national sovereignty. Over the past decades, leaks by Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning have shown that no country is virtuous of espionage.

Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations familiarized the world that both democratic and authoritarian governments are extremely interested in using technology to keep tabs on private citizens. This time the spying on human rights activists, journalists and lawyers and even politicians across the world have been targeted by authoritarian governments and democracies using hacking software sold by the Israeli surveillance company NSO (Niv, Shalev and Omri) Group. The investigations on data leaks were conducted by the global media consortium that includes the Guardian and 16 other media organizations suggesting widespread and continuing abuse of NSO’s hacking spyware, Pegasus. According to the Guardian report, 18th July 2021, ‘Pegasus is the hacking software or spyware that is developed, marketed and licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli company NSO Group. It can infect billions of phones running either iOS or Android operating systems.

A substantial threat that the Pegasus poses to the journalists and human rights defenders is that the software exploits undiscovered weaknesses; even the most security-conscious mobile phone user can’t prevent the assault. As per the Guardian report, NSO sold its software to 40 governments across the globe with the sole aim to help them investigate ‘terrorists and criminals’. However, the leaked data reveal tens of thousands of numbers of people who have no connections to criminality. Besides, the forensic analysis discloses that some governments are spying on pro-democracy activists, journalists investigating corruption and political opponents.

Digital surveillance is a widespread problem in present times and democracies across the globe have failed miserably to take spyware or surveillance tools seriously. The fallouts of supplying this surveillance software to people in power (governments or individuals) are at a surge resulting in the arrests and murder of journalists & human rights defenders around the world.

To exemplify the uncensored use of this troubling spyware – Pegasus and its implications, the case of the Washington Post Columnist, Jamal Khashoggi are fresh in everyone mind. The revelations from Forbidden Stories and its cohorts found Pegasus spyware installed on the phone of Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz just four days after the murder of Jamal Kashoggi. Khashoggi’s son Abdullah along with his friend Omar Abdul Aziz were also the targets. Kashoggi was sore of an eye for the young Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman aka MBS, so to hunt him and his doings, he was spied and then murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey without an iota of fear of the implications.

Furthermore, local Mexican journalist, Cecilio Pineda recorded his last revelation about the nexus between the state and local police with the head of a drug cartel on 2nd March 2017. Two hours later, he was shot six times by two men on a motorcycle. Khadija Ismayilova is one among 200 journalists around the world whose phones have been selected as targets by NSO clients. Ismayilova, an investigative reporter from Azerbaijan, is a journalist who works to expose cross-border financial corruption. She exposed big stories about money laundering and dodgy banking, despite being targeted by President Ilham Aliyev’s authoritarian regime. She was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison and her privacy was trespassed by the government. Szabolcs Panyi, an investigative journalist at Direkt36 in Hungary, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an Indian investigative journalist and Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu of The Wire are also the targets of Pegasus spyware. There are many such cases where journalists and human rights defenders were spied on stealthily without their cognizance.

Despite all these restrictions and murders, democratic countries like the US and ethnic democracies like Israel turned a blind eye towards the unethical use of digital regression tools (soft or hardware). Steven Feldstein in his book ‘The Rise of Digital Repression: How Technology is Reshaping Power, Politics and Resistance’ investigates how governments are frequently exerting dictatorial measures through new technologies. His research is based on Thailand, the Philippines and Ethiopia. His research concludes the ways governments exploit their citizen’s digital habits by stealthily curbing their freedoms. Feldstein in his book mentions at least 65 governments from Chile to Vietnam who have got commercial spyware surveillance tools such as Cellebrite, FinFisher, Blue Coat, Hacking Team, CyberPoint, L3 Technologies, Verint and NSO group whose headquarters are in the most democratic countries in the world including the US, Italy, France, German and of course Israel.

The cost of deploying spyware Pegasus is too steep. According to an Indian Express Report, 21st July 2021, this particular spyware costs a $500,000 installation fee, $300,000 to spy on 10 iPhones or Androids, $500,000 for five blackberry users or $300,000 for five Symbian users. This illustrates that the so-called democracies & ethnic democracies are willing to do business with authoritarian regimes or otherwise by turning a blind eye to the effects of espionage on journalists, opposition leaders and human rights defenders, thus undermining the cause of human rights worldwide.

In the recent past, China was largely blamed for displaying the use of digital technology to control the citizens and they have supplied a sizable spy tech to a few abusive regimes but they aren’t the sole bad guys. The Canadian company Sandvine supply censorship technology to Belarus & Egypt, the French company Nexa Technologies sell internet surveillance to Libya & Egypt and the US-based Oracle provide surveillance to China. “Western companies have a long track record of selling powerful tools to bad governments”, Steven Feldstein wrote in an article.

China has been criticized for its role in the rise of digital authoritarianism, however, even democratic nations have opted for Pegasus to tame their opponents & curb dissent. In India, the Narendra Modi government has been accused of eavesdropping on political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders. According to Parakala Prabhakar, an Indian political economist, political commentator, economic, and social affairs some 300 phone numbers were also figured in the list released by Forbidden stories, however, as per the Washington Post report, 19th July 2021, more than 1000 phone numbers in India appeared on the list. Such a trend in the world’s largest democracy speaks volumes about the erosion of civil liberties under the BJP’s rule. The list under the surveillance contains phone numbers of Rahul Gandhi, opposition leader, Ashok Lavasa, former Election Commissioner of India and a hurdle for BJP and M.Hari Menon, the local head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The list also includes journos, human rights activists, business executives and many more.  An opposition party, Congress has accused Narendra Modi’s government of being the ‘deployer & executor’ of a ‘spying racket’.

Narendra Modi’s government is unmoved and has denied any wrongdoings. The IT minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw denied the media reports and termed the reports about surveillance as an ‘attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions’. It is quite confusing what to call India, a democracy or a surveillance state. Espionage in the name of ‘national interest’ or ‘national sovereignty is the biggest threat to the ‘right to privacy which is a fundamental pillar of democracy.

Digital repression or authoritarianism is a threat to ‘freedom of expression’. The widespread censorship of the internet, restrictions on the access of information and systematic removal of content are a few of the practices India has been doing in Kashmir while it criticizes China for gross human rights violations.  A state can either be a democracy or an authoritarian one but there is no way in between. Surveillance on people only fosters fear and mistrust. It can never bind social fabrics together, therefore democratic or dictatorial nations have to choose with caution. In the name of national integrity, espionage could lead to disintegration beyond repair.

Given the use of spyware by the bad regimes or otherwise, democratic governments need to work collaboratively to reinvigorate the democratic alliance for the digital age. Sales of such spyware should be restricted unless an extensive review of the technology and ensuring human rights safeguards. Besides, ‘big boss – the US’ has to ensure the technology doesn’t get into the hands of bad guys.

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