On 19 July 2021, a consortium of 17 international media organizations published a report of investigation of around a leaked list of phone numbers from across the world, dubbed the Pegasus Project. The data was accessed by a Paris-based non-profit called Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, who then shared it with 17 international media organization across the world as part of the Pegasus Project. The revelation that Pegasus, a spyware manufactured by an Israeli company NSO and sold only to its client governments to carry out surveillance on some targeted groups or persons by hacking their computers and smartphones, had stirred the entire world. According to NSO, this spyware is sold only to governments to investigate and prevent terrorist and national security incidents. By its own admission, the spyware firm has 60 customers spread across 40 countries. It bears mention here that governments not on the Pegasus list do not have clean hands either. Many technologically advanced countries are, in fact, at the heart of snooping, using cutting edge software tools. The US operates in a league of its own. Last year, a US court of appeals held that the mass domestic surveillance of phone calls by the country’s National Security Agency may have been unconstitutional.
Capitalist-imperialist powers have been using Pegasus for long for snooping
Since NSO had introduced Pegasus to the global market in 2011, a number of governments tied knots with it for secret surveillance. European powers have reportedly used Pegasus quietly to thwart terrorist plots. Mexico deployed the software not just against gangsters and smuggler lords, but also against journalists and political dissidents. The United Arab Emirates used the software to hack the phone of a civil rights activist. Saudi Arabia used it against women’s rights activists and for spying on a dissenting columnist whom Saudi operatives killed and dismembered in Istanbul in 2018. So it was meant not just for terrorist and security issues only. It was meant also, and may be mainly, against political opponents too.
The intense desire inside the imperialist US government for offensive hacking tools has not gone unnoticed by the company’s potential American competitors. In January 2021, a cyber-weapons firm called Boldend made a pitch to Raytheon, the defence-industry giant. According to a presentation obtained by The Times, the company had developed for various American government agencies its own arsenal of weapons for attacking cell-phones and other devices. The details of purchase and testing of Pegasus by US spy agency FBI have already come to the fore. As part of their training, FBI employees bought new smartphones at local stores and set them up with dummy accounts, using SIM cards from other countries – Pegasus was so designed that it could not be detected when hacking into American numbers. This version of Pegasus was “zero click” – unlike more common hacking software, it did not require users to click on a malicious attachment or link – so the the American phone users could see no evidence of an ongoing breach. They couldn’t see the Pegasus computers connecting to a network of servers around the world, hacking the phone. What they could see, minutes later, was every piece of data stored on the phone vanished as it unspooled onto the large monitors of the Pegasus computers: every email, every photo, every text thread, every personal contact. The Pegasus computers could also see the phone’s location and even take control of its camera and microphone. F.B.I. agents using Pegasus could, in theory, almost instantly transform phones around the world into powerful surveillance tools. Nurtured by repressive governments and with exports to other governments aspiring to reach similar heights of repression, the industry is booming. Israel and its elite Unit 8200–itself is a hotbed of crackerjack surveillance tech firms that can assist you with phone hacking, facial recognition and other creepy smartphone spyware. Hence, NSO was doubling its sales every year–$15 million, $30 million, $60 million. That growth attracted the attention of investors. In 2014, Francisco Partners, a US-based global investment firm, paid $130 million for 70 percent of NSO’s shares, then merged another Israeli cyber-weapon firm, called Circles, into their new acquisition. A New York Times investigation reveals how Israel reaped diplomatic gains around the world from NSO’s Pegasus spyware–a tool America itself purchased but is now trying to ban.
Under the ban, NSO’s future is in doubt, not just because of its reliance on American technology but also because its presence on an American blacklist will probably scare away prospective clients–and employees. One Israeli industry veteran says that the ‘‘sharks in the water smell blood,’’ and Israeli officials and industry executives say there are currently a handful of American companies, some with close ties to intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, interested in buying the company. Were that to happen, the new owner could potentially bring the company in line with U.S. regulations and start selling its products to the CIA, the FBI and other American agencies eager to pay for the power its weapons offer. Obviously, it would spell still more dangerous omens.
BJP government is on the list of the spyware clients
A chilly flutter was created in India when the news was appeared that the BJP Government had procured the spyware to snoop into the privacy of over 300 persons of India including journalists, politicians, industrialists, social activists, ministers, Supreme Court judges and even the chief of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). As the findings have been vetted by 16 media entities from across the world as well as Amnesty International, it was not that easy to brush aside the disclosure that the BJP Government had bought this insidious software tool to have unauthorized access to and interception of all information about select people in brazen violation of the privacy and security of the Indian citizens. The Government initially tried to deny involvement through a slew of ambiguous and ludicrous defensive arguments like calling the story not only ‘‘bereft of facts but also founded in pre-conceived conclusions’’. It further mentioned in its official statement that ‘‘the allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever’’. In India there is a well-established procedure through which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out in order for the purpose of national security, particularly on the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety, by agencies at the Centre and states. The requests for these lawful interceptions of electronic communication are made as per relevant rules under the provisions of section 5(2) of Indian Telegraph Act,1885 (which deal with Power for Government to take possession of licensed telegraphs and to order interception of messages in emergency situation) and section 69 of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2000 (power to intercept, monitor or decrypt or cause to be intercepted or monitored or decrypted any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource). But neither of these two laws gives unbridled power of espionage on individuals. Even Shree Krishna Committee which had a responsibility to look out for the data protection law in India expressed its concern over the government’s enthusiasm to curtail the fundamental right of right to privacy. Finally, the technical analysis on smartphones that confirms the presence of the spyware and its methodology was undertaken by the reputed Citizen Lab, housed at the University of Toronto. But the Government still went on defending itself by arguing that ‘‘presence of a phone number in the list does not amount to snooping’’. Minister of Electronics and Information Technology, Ashwani Vaishnaw said in Parliament on 20 July 2021: ‘‘When we look at this issue through the prism of logic, it clearly emerges that there is no substance behind this sensationalism.’’ ‘‘Ministry of Defence (MoD) has not had any transaction with NSO Group Technologies,’’ Minister of State for Defence Ajay Bhatt said in August 2021 in a written reply in the Rajya Sabha to a question. However, the response, if one looks at it carefully, was specific to the MoD and did not exclude other Ministries, particularly Home Ministry and investigative agencies under it like CBI, ED etc. that might have been engaged with the Pegasus firm.
At the peak of preposterousness had been the BJP Home Minister Amit Shah. He claimed that the Pegasus Project chose 18 July 2021 as the day to begin publishing stories because the aim was to disrupt both the opening day of the monsoon session of parliament and the Modi government’s great plans to make India a developed country. This claim was indeed laughable, given that the government decided to pick July 19 as the opening of the monsoon session only at the end of June. In any case, the leaked database pertains not just to India but to France, Morocco, Mexico, the UAE and the idea that the Pegasus Project was aimed solely at Modi was clearly ridiculous.
Supreme Court directed an independent probe
The Government’s defence was visibly weak. Pegasus involves hacking–a criminal offence under India’s Information Technology Act and no lawful authorization for hacking is permitted by statute. This is why the Modi government cannot acknowledge using Pegasus, because that would be tantamount to admitting that it broke the law, and it certainly cannot admit to targeting journalists, opposition political leaders besides its own ministers and others.
So, a petition was filed in Supreme Court by senior journalists N. Ram and Sashi Kumar for an independent probe headed by a former or sitting judge into such mass surveillance of using a military-grade spyware which, it held, ‘‘abridges several fundamental rights and appears to represent an attempt to infiltrate, attack and destabilize independent institutions that act as critical pillars of our democratic set-up’’. The petition was accepted by the Supreme Court and it set up an inquiry headed by a retired judge. A ‘‘vague denial from the government is not sufficient’’, the Supreme Court said sharply, asserting that the government could not give any clarity despite being given ‘‘ample opportunity’’ to do so. There had been no specific denial by the Central Government. The Court also declined the Government’s request to set up an expert panel, saying it would ‘‘violate the settled judicial principle against bias’’. Chief Justice NV Ramana began the judgment with a quote–‘‘If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself’’, while delivering the order.
UN human rights experts for global moratorium on spyware trade
Also, a panel of UN human rights experts have called on governments to impose a global moratorium on the sale and transfer of spyware technology, saying the revelations by the Pegasus Project consortium are cause for deep concern. ‘‘It is highly dangerous and irresponsible to allow the surveillance technology and trade sector to operate as a human rights-free zone,’’ the experts warned, adding that they are deeply concerned that ‘‘highly sophisticated intrusive tools are being used to monitor, intimidate and silence human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents’’. ‘‘Such practices violate the rights to freedom of expression, privacy and liberty, possibly endanger the lives of hundreds of individuals, imperil media freedom, and undermine democracy, peace, security and international cooperation,’’ they added. This is a clear indication of how the revelations have bothered even the noted international human right activists.
New York Times report about India’s procurement of Pegasus
But ‘‘Crime is terribly revealing,’’ said celebrated detective novel writer Agatha Christie. ‘‘Try and vary your methods as you will, your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul is revealed by your actions.’’ New York Times, the well-known print media, in its issue dated 28 January 2022 has clearly brought out that ‘‘In July 2017, Narendra Modi, who won office on a platform of Hindu nationalism, became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. For decades, India had maintained a policy of what it called ‘commitment to the Palestinian cause,’ and relations with Israel were frosty. The Modi visit, however, was notably cordial, complete with a carefully staged moment of him and Prime Minister Netanyahu walking together barefoot on a local beach. They had reason for the warm feelings. Their countries had agreed on the sale of a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear worth roughly $2 billion–with Pegasus and a missile system as the centerpieces. Months later, Netanyahu made a rare state visit to India. And in June 2019, India voted in support of Israel at the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council to deny observer status to a Palestinian human rights organization, a first for the nation.’’
Dumbstruck at this startling revelation, the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs declined to comment on the story. The BJP high-ups are taking shelter behind the fact that the case is sub judice. As of now, the Supreme Court-constituted committee is mandated to identify the guilty, establish if any government agency acquired the spyware, and find whether lawful procedures were followed for operating it. The Committee has not yet submitted its report. But the government has not refuted the report either which definitely smacks of something fishy.
Crux of the revelation
But why the global bourgeois leaders at the helm of governance and hankering for power have no other option but to bank on abuse of latest technology? What prompts them to commit a most heinous crime like secretly tracking and keeping a tab on the movements and activities of persons they suspect of turning dissenter in future or being strong contenders in the race for power? Why they need to keep a covert vigil even on a section of their own ‘confidants’. If one seeks to find the reason in the autocratic aspirations of some individual leaders like Modi, then one would not be able to acquaint oneself with the inherent fundamental truth. They would need to go into the very root of such a criminality. These offending bourgeois leaders like Modi who are now kingpins of such devilish acts are all servile to a system that is so rotten as to emit nothing else but effluvium to relentlessly pollute and smother everything that is civilized and righteous. Because, they are now afraid of their own shadows. More crisis-ridden is capitalism, more, more afraid it becomes of its downfall and so more it is baring its fascist autocratic tooth and claws, unfolding its utter corrupt and wanton reactionary character. In order to prolong the moribund decadent existence, capitalist-imperialist rulers and their political agents are adopting all foul means, all kinds of notoriety, all sorts of draconian measures and even undercover activities to stave off popular upsurge as well as muffle dissenting voice. For that, reckless abuse of advanced technology has become a regular practice. In our country, the BJP, now the most trusted political face of the ruling Indian monopolists, has become instrumental in operationalizing this sinister machination. So, spying on political opponents and dissenters, snatching all basic human rights including right to privacy and even right to live freely , ruthless crushing of democratic mass movements by resorting to most cruel and inhuman methods are on a menacing rise.
And now it is coming to fore how, using people’s money, the BJP government like all its despotic counterparts in different imperialist-capitalist countries, is procuring spywares to track the movements of their targeted suspects. History would bear out that such tracking systems were misused by despotic and fascist forces earlier as well. German rulers used IBM Hollerith D-11 card sorting machine in the census of the country in 1933 and since there was a provision for identifying race and ethnicity, the Nazi rulers with the help of IBM could conveniently count and identify the Jews whom they savagely butchered out of racial hatred. Now that technology of such espionage tools have been much more fine-tuned to hack personal electronic gadgets of the targeted persons even if those are on ‘switch off mode’ and have an access each and every private details of theirs on a real time basis. This is a flagrant violation of the right to privacy and brazenly militates against the elementary democratic codes that the bourgeoisie itself framed during their period of rising. So even the judiciary could not acquiesce in the move despite the government’s motivated argument that the allegation cannot come under scanner as any step to safeguard country’s security is above board. While PM Modi and the BJP have to be put on the dock for such a unpardonable criminal offence, one has to imbibe the underlying truth that the bigger and the more venomous culprit is the decaying capitalist system that they serve to remain in power.