By Prakash Kona
Why am I not surprised that it is an Israeli company producing the spyware Pegasus that enables government-based security agencies to infiltrate mobile phones clandestinely and gain access to private information, that normally one would not share with others! I would have expected China to produce a spyware software of this kind. Strangely, it is democratic countries like the US and Israel that are promoting a spyware being sold to regimes holding on to power by crushing common aspirations, thus making even small attempts by the masses to improve their lives nearly impossible. We have the tragic privilege of living in the golden age of mass surveillance. Never in history have governments and states been so successful in controlling almost every aspect of an individual’s personal and social life.
The stated aim of the NSO group that produces Pegasus as disclosed on their website is: “NSO creates technology that helps government agencies prevent and investigate terrorism and crime to save thousands of lives around the globe.” Condescending statements like the following one issued by the NSO Group are actually meant for the safety of the powerful: “Millions of people around the world are sleeping well at night, and safely walking in the streets, thanks to Pegasus and similar technologies.” It is the ruling classes and their henchmen, the government officials, who are sleeping well at night, especially the politicians, bureaucrats, police and the army, because the streets are in their death grip.
Needless to say, this spyware appeals to the paranoia and extreme insecurity of “power elites” such as the ones in the third world so that they can monitor the members of opposition parties and persecute leaders of movements fighting for change. Who wants to live in a country made secure by a powerful army and a police force, like the US and Israel! I want to live in a country where people are mostly content with their lives and are not prone to violence. My security comes from the general well-being of those around me. Ideally my security should not come from there being a strong police force or an army. A really safe country is one where the security agencies play the minimal role in the maintenance of security. People feel secure in such a country because they are kind to those in need and are ungrudgingly willing to invest their time and resources for others. Alternatively, the promise of safe streets to walk on and “sleeping well,” as declared by the Pegasus spyware makers, is a euphemism for a police state.
The history of struggles for freedom from the 18th century onwards is predicated on one simple principle: that the individual must be free to choose his or her life as one thinks fit for oneself. It is impossible that human nature will grow any other way except in the soil of freedom. I agree that security is important and people need to sleep and walk about freely. But security cannot be an excuse to impose collective systems of surveillance only because the government is incapable of making subtle distinctions. I remember a teacher at school who habitually punished the entire class because she did not have to worry about making a distinction between guilt and innocence. As a boy I thought that the teacher was wrong. I still do. More or less this is the logic behind the governments using surveillance technologies in order to put down contrarian tendencies in individuals. The sad irony is that a society without contrarians is a society that is going down the drain.
In principle I agree that the maintenance of law and order is vital for any country. Ensuring stability in the day-to-day lives of citizens ought to be one of the primary functions of a government. One of the ways in which this could be done is by controlling extremism in any form and by preventing extremists of any label from gaining power. It is easy for even stable societies to fall prey to extremisms. Governments inevitably have to be one step ahead of those who intend to break the law with impunity. There is always a need for intelligence agencies to be alert in order to ensure that there is no violent outbreak leading to utter chaos and immense suffering to ordinary people. So far, so good! But, then, the million-dollar question is: who saves us from the ones who sit behind these instruments of surveillance and use the information to bribe or blackmail individuals by threatening to expose details of their personal lives?
In 2015, at the university I work, we organized a conference titled “Exploring Moral Interfaces: Private Worlds and Public Systems” asking some of these very questions, that I am quoting below from the concept note:
““Everyone deserves a private life,” says the female protagonist in the 1994 movie, Three Colors: Red by Krzysztof Kieślowski. The intrusive nature of the modern technologies that facilitate access—without consent or acknowledgement—to the private domains of people’s lives further blurs the already hazy borderlines that separate the public from the private.
To what extent is it possible to delineate within a social and legal framework the discourse of the private, which constitutes the personal world of feeling (and which, strictly speaking, is also the nuclear space of civil society)—from the institutional demands of public systems, of which the State is a major but not necessarily a paradigmatic example? What exactly is the moral status of a person’s privacy? And how do we historicize the private and the “private” individual?
To what extent can a person’s private life be used against him/her in the context of his/her public positions or actions? Is it alright to invoke specificities of private life to question the stand a person takes on public issues? Can there be rules in this matter? Or would it be a matter entirely for self-regulation—in which case, would there be rules in any meaningful sense? How do literary artists, filmmakers, philosophers, sociologists, legal experts and social scientists envision the point where the ‘private’ ends and the ‘public’ begins? It is often said that those in public life should be ready to have their private lives discussed, exposed and used as ammunition in public polemics and political contestations. Is this view justified? What exactly is the moral basis of this view?”
The spyware Pegasus is in the hands of government officials and politicians whose moral credentials have not been verified. It is not acceptable for such men or women to have that kind of a power over other individual persons. The fundamental point that Kieślowski makes in the last movie of his trilogy Three Colors: Red that a person’s privacy cannot be violated no matter what, is relevant to the world we live in, where security agencies have become more powerful than ever before owing to their access to cameras and other means of surveillance.
Since I come from a country where the home is a mini-state with the patriarchal family playing the role of a government, I can tell with confidence that the State with a capital ‘S’ merely reproduces some of those dark intentions of power that most people are already used to living with parents in neighborhoods where everyone wants to know what is happening in your life. The streets used to be relatively free before the arrival of cameras. Some amount of indulgence in harmless mischief by the young was possible in a time before the camera started looking everywhere. Just now literally, the companies, educational institutions, apartment complexes, shops and of course the streets are monitored by cameras, so much so, I often feel that at any moment the police might knock at my door and take me in for interrogation, simply because I was going through certain suspect websites or sending objectionable messages or making defamatory comments on social media. That climate of fear is what creates a psychologically oppressive political order wherein individuals from civil society could at any point be declared as violators of a social and ethical code only because they happen to be living life on their own terms. And now we have something like Pegasus to monitor what we speak or relay using our phones! This is the straw breaking the camel’s already broken back.
My own view is that what happens between consenting adult individuals is not anyone’s business. What is terrible about the spyware is that the person who monitors your phone and computer also gets to know what is happening in your personal life! There is absolutely no guarantee that the information will not be used against you. It is the sacred duty of governments and courts of law to protect people’s private lives from being intruded upon and turned into a news item for a gossip hungry media and public. But where governments themselves are keen on trampling upon the rights of common people, there is no hope that the surveillance mechanisms will not be subject to abuse.
Like I said earlier, we need a responsible law and order mechanism. Realistically speaking, I don’t believe that now or in the near future, we can do without a police or an army. But to police anyone or everyone at random because you suspect them to be opposed to your agenda is both unethical and meaningless. The worst part of it is the fear factor – the fear of being shamed and humiliated through a media trial that often precedes a real trial or the fear that you could be languishing in prison for years before you are able to witness the sunlight of justice.
In my view “moral policing” which is about compelling individuals to conform to a stereotype should be treated as a crime against humanity. The people who do the moral policing are usually themselves of very low or no moral standards. This includes religious fanatics and corrupt policemen who come from reactionary social backgrounds. They like to use power to impose their will on those who are a little more educated and rational than themselves.
However, Pegasus spyware is far more dangerous than mere moral policing, when it comes to intruding privacy and curtailing individual liberty. In his essay “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill says, “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” The question that no government can answer without getting stuck in a quagmire is, “who decides on the parameters of whether an individual or a group could be harmful to others?” There are countless instances to prove that governments are extremely likely to abuse information to harass whoever is seen as a threat to power. At the end of the day, the government is only a group of people in power, unwilling to part with that power at all costs. A conscientious citizenry aware of its rights and responsibilities must ensure that governments work under their supervision and not the other way round. It is only then that we can put an end to this menace of state intrusion into the private lives of common people.