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Project Pegasus: Unauthorized Snooping Or Threat To National Security? – OpEd

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‘Pegasus’, the mythical winged horse has been the center of the universe of discourse for the last few days. Only this time, this is not a horse, but a spy software developed by Israel’s NSO group that exploits the weaknesses of someone’s phone that even the manufacturers don’t know about.  Using ‘Pegasus’, a cell phone can be hacked and it will start transmitting data to the attacker through the apps, microphone or camera.  It’s like having a spy in one’s pocket; turning the phone, one paid for, a weapon, used by others. 

NSO group says that they created a technology that helps government agencies prevent and investigate terrorism and crime to save thousands of lives around the globe, and this sophisticated software are sold only to vetted governments for targeted surveillance. Pegasus is expensive licensed software unsuitable for mass surveillance, only to surveil one cell phone at a time. The cost of one license can be as high as $83,000 with an installation price up to $50,000. 

“Project Pegasus” is a collaborative investigative journalism project by 17 news organizations across the world, along with non-profit “Forbidden Stories” and “Amnesty International”. They got hold of a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets from NSO’s office; the list includes heads of States, activists, and journalists including Jamal Khashoggi’s family.

NSO group says it has 60 government agency clients from 40 countries; all the countries named remain unnamed. Majority of the number identified are from 10 countries, including India. This revelation has left the Indian political grounds topsy-turvy.  This write up is all about India’s Watergate moment of unchecked snooping.

The leaked list is of “Potential Targets” only, some of the cell phones were sent to labs for forensics. After Amnesty labs sampling of few of these phones, they found out, attempts were made on some, while some were successfully hacked.

Some of the names came up as potential targets are:

  1. Rahul Gandhi and 5 of his associates; whose phones were attempted for hacking right before the latest general election and again right after the polls. 
  2. Political strategist, Prashant Kishore; 3 attempts were made to hack his phone,first before the general election, second before the West Bengal Election and lastly on July this year right before he met the Gadhi clan.
  3. Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee.
  4. Two current ministers; attempted back in 2018 before they even joined BJP.
  5. Bishwa Hindu Parishad’s leader Praveen Togaria; someone, Modi doesn’t like very much because of Togaria’s awry comments about Modi seeking public sympathy. 
  6. Ex Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s female staff who charged Gogoi for sexual harassment and her 11 associates including family members.
  7. Ashok Lavasa, member of 3-men election commission; his phone was attempted to hack right before the latest general election.
  8. Around 40 journalists name were at the list, most of which were attempted before the general election of India.

The list above shows the similar background of the targets. All the potential targets were attempted to put under surveillance either to foresee the result of the general election or to put a leash on the anti-establishments. In short, those who are in the bad book of the Modi government or posses any potential threat, found a place in the list. 

Well, this is not the first time project Pegasus was revealed in India. Since 2019, when the issue first broke out, the Indian government has been throwing adumbrated answers. “No unauthorized use has been done” and “If over 40 countries use Pegasus, why only targeting India?” these uncapacious comments neither confirmed the accusation nor denied this. 

Let’s say Indian Government is guilt free and some other country is snooping on India’s internal issues and politics, which remains mostly unstable without any external provocation. In that case, the arrow automatically aims at Pakistan. But the fact is that many politicians of Pakistan and the Prime Minister Imran Khan himself are on the leaked list of potential targets. But again, this is just a speculation. 

The government of India says that all the interception in India takes place lawfully. Let’s see how lawful the interceptions were.

Communication surveillance in India takes place primarily under two laws — the Telegraph Act, 1885 and the Information Technology Act, 2000. Under this law, the government can intercept calls only in certain situations — the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order, or for preventing incitement to the commission of an offence. These are the same restrictions imposed on free speech under Article 19(2) of the Constitution.

Significantly, even these restrictions can be imposed only when there is a condition precedent — the occurrence of any public emergency, or in the interest of public safety.

Additionally, a proviso in Section 5(2) states that even this lawful interception cannot take place against journalists. “Provided that press messages intended to be published in India of correspondents accredited to the Central Government or a State Government shall not be intercepted or detained, unless their transmission has been prohibited under this sub-section.”

But sadly, this unauthorized snooping using Pegasus is not only unlawful but also contradictory to freedom of speech. It left the democracy of India hanging by a thread and a hole too wide to fill for Modi government.

India is at the crossroads. It can either accept and amend the guilt or live in denial and turn itself into a closed and fanatic state. India has to choose wise. 

*Anushka Sengupta, a digital marketer and a freelance writer, from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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