Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | The impact of Pegasus revelations

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | The impact of Pegasus revelations

In this episode, our Diplomatic Affairs Editor Suhasini Haidar discusses the diplomatic implications of the Pegasus revelations

In the space of a week, 17 media organisations across the world have unloaded the names of thousands of people – mainly journalists, activists, government officials who were on a list of numbers believed to have been targeted for hacking, using an Israeli company NSO’s technology called Pegasus. The list was leaked to a French organisation called Forbidden Stories which worked with Amnesty International’s tech arm.

The revelations are explosive for a number of reasons:

1.      Pegasus technology is so powerful as a cybersurveillance tool, it is actually classified as a weapon, and goes through export clearances as a lethal weapon would from Israel- once it infects a phone, it can not only read every message and call, it can turn on the phone remotely to record every conversation made near the device, without the target’s knowledge.

2.     NSO, which has denied the list, says it only sells and installs the technology for foreign governments or their law enforcement agencies, which would imply that if the list is real, these were people under surveillance from governments

3.     Ten countries were seen as the most concentrated areas of the targets, implying that people in those countries were being hacked by a government, and the suspicion is, it was their own governments who had the most reason to do so.  Apart from India, the list of countries includes Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

4.     NSO and the Israeli government have repeatedly said that Pegasus is meant to track down only the most wanted terrorists and criminals, and the invasion of privacy that it involves is only warranted because of that. Yet, a majority if not nearly all the numbers tracked belong to civil society, government officials, and political opposition leaders, not dreaded criminals. In India for example, of 115 names released thus far, 40 are journalists, 40 are civil rights activists 14 are politicians including ministers, and the minister of IT . Globally there are ten heads of state or former heads of state on the various lists, atleast 180 journalists amongst  50,000 phone numbers believed to be targets chosen by clients of NSO since 2016.

This is not the first time such revelations have come about with such far reaching consequences:

1.        There was the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, which led to the impeachment and resignation of US President Richard Nixon, when it emerged that the government had authorised the bugging of the Democratic National Convention’s offices, just ahead of his re-election campaign.

2.        There were a series of Wikileaks revelations from about 2011 that have revealed government databases, and manuals on surveillance from US to Syria to Turkey, France etc, and led to many prosecutions and lawsuits on human rights violations and procedural lapses

3.        In 2013, The Snowden papers, documents revealed by a former technology contractor, revealed the extent of surveillance by the US National Security Agency on citizens and foreign nationals that led to  a full overhaul of the NSA, and contracts with private technology firms came under sharp scrutiny.

4.        And now there’s the Pegasus project, that adds a new dimension: technology purportedly sold by one country to other countries to conduct the most insidious surveillance. While surveillance is a fact of life, the ease of using Pegasus technology with no checks and balances is what appears to make this the international scandal it is.

What is the impact of Pegasus thus far?

1.        Of the countries on the list, many like India, UAE and Saudi Arabia have flatly denied any wrongdoing- although not denied contracting for Pegasus technology

2.        Israel’s new government has reportedly ordered an enquiry and set up a special commission to look into whether policy changes are needed for the export of surveillance tech. Defence Minister Benny Gantz has stressed that the technology is only sold to governments for legal use, that those countries must meet those terms, and licenses of those found in violation would be cancelled.

3.       France has ordered a series of enquiries into surveillance of its citizens including President Macron and his cabinet.

4.        The UK is considering an enquiry given that about 400 citizens are on the list, with allegations they were under surveillance from NSO clients in the UAE

5.        Algeria’s public prosecutor has also ordered an enquiry, the government accusing Morocco of targeting its citizens.

6.        Azerbaijan’s government has been silent thus far, but activists in the country plan to sue NSO

7.        In Hungary, where PM Orban’s government is accused of using Pegasus on its critics, The Budapest Regional Investigation Prosecutor’s Office said it will investigate the Pegasus case, for the suspected “crime of gathering unauthorised secret information”.

In India, the government has not given in to demands for a full enquiry.

What is the diplomatic fallout the Indian government faces?

1.      Names on the Pegasus project list include Delhi-based diplomats and employees of various countries including US, UK, Afghanistan, Iran, Nepal, China and Pakistan. Pakistani PM Imran Khan is also on the list. While surveillance of diplomats to detect espionage is not uncommon, the cardinal rule is that it must not be found out, especially with friendly countries, or it could lead to a strain in ties,

2.     If the Israeli investigation into the use of Pegasus software were to find that the Indian government has misused the technology meant to target rogue agents, it could lead to a breach of contract, or a cancellation, which would impact bilateral ties. The Pegasus surveillance has been tied in India to former Israeli PM Netanyahu’s meeting with PM Modi in 2017, as with other countries on the list. The current PM Naftali Bennet was a Minister at the time, but could distance his new government from the contracts.

3.     Most significantly, if the Pegasus project allegations are proven – they show that the government in India was snooping only on its critics and those of its own members it suspected at considerable taxpayer’s expense – which is damaging for India’s reputation as a democracy, globally. Remember, if done by the book, surveillance under India’s IT act (Section 69) can only be time-bound and ordered under strict supervision in the interest of :  

“The sovereignty or integrity of India; Defense of India; Security of the State;  Friendly relations with foreign States; Public order;  Preventing incitement and the investigation of any offense”

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