Spying, surveillance and other forms of intelligence assessment have existed since ancient times, spying has been often dubbed as the second oldest profession. Historically, those with power have increased or held on to that power by the employment of agents loyal to them and use of surveillance to keep the uprisings at bay. Times have changed and so have the surveillance techniques, from hiring agents to high-tech surveillance operations but with this evolution, it has also gotten much more alarming. One such example is that of the Pegasus spyware.
For the first time in the history of modern spying, we are witnessing the extent of surveillance and the identities of those targeted by surveillance. It is a global scandal – a web of unprecedented cyber-surveillance.
What is Pegasus?
Pegasus is a hacking software, or a spyware, capable of infecting both IOS and Android operating systems through ‘zero-click’ attacks i.e. it does not require any interaction from the phone’s owner to succeed. Pegasus, developed by the Israeli company NSO Group, is now being termed as one of the most powerful and potentially dangerous spywares ever developed. Once the spyware has wormed its way onto the users’ phone without their knowledge, it can turn it into a 24-hour surveillance device. The software copies conversations the user sends or receives, records phone calls and collects your photos. It might also give away (reveal) the user’s location and film them.
NSO sells this software to 40 governments around the world, which it claims is being used to investigate an weed out ‘terrorists and criminals’. The leaked list of users affected however has nothing to do with criminal activities. A closer look at the victims suggests some governments might be spying on political activists, pro-democracy activists and journalists investigating corruption.
With the situation gradually unfolding it seems that dissent, activism and political opposition, unfortunately, pose much more threat to the governments than criminals and terrorists in today’s age. As per the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the spyware was attempting to monitor people close to the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, both before and after he was murdered in 2018. A murdered Mexican journalist’s number was on the list of the hacked victims. In India, hundreds of opponents of the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi government have been targeted which includes journalists and activists as well the senior Congress party leader, Rahul Gandhi. Mr. Gandhi called it “an attack on the democratic foundations of our country”.
Surveillance by Fascist governments
The Fascist regime in India led by Modi has not only used the spyware to target opponents at home but also tried to snoop on Prime Minister Imran Khan. According to The Washington Post, more than 1,000 phone numbers in India appeared on the surveillance list while hundreds were from Pakistan, including the one PM Imran Khan once used before coming into power. Pakistan has condemned India’s “state-sponsored, continuing and widespread surveillance and spying operations”, and called it a clear breach of global norms of responsible state behavior. Thus, confirming Pakistan’s fears about its long-standing arch-rival and neighbours’ malicious designs against its sovereignty.
Earlier last year, a Europe-based outlet EU DisinfoLab revealed some startling details in its report called the “Indian Chronicles” detailing India’s involvement in propagating and amplifying fake news against Pakistan and using the UN as a tool to disparage its adversaries.
The leaked database at the core of the Pegasus project also includes the mobile phone numbers of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and thirteen other important political figures including various heads of state and heads of government. Apart from India, other countries that have had access to NSO’s spyware include Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Mexico which the company claims to have “vetted” for human right records.
The way forward
The government of Israel has initiated an inquiry into the allegations of misuse of the Pegasus spyware, so has the French government. The US officials have also voiced concerns with Israel regarding the Pegasus revelations.
But is mere concern and condemnation enough to put an end to a new era of surveillance that’s proving to be far more dangerous than initially anticipated? This is no ordinary capitalist surveillance that seeks to modify our consumption behavior, what Pegasus reveals is far more sinister and is a direct attack on freedom of speech and peace by fascist governments and leaders around the world. It does not only pose a threat to journalists, activists or political opponents but is fully capable of causing turbulence between various states, aiding conflict and furthering agendas of right-wing extremist governments like that of BJP next door. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Snowden warned: “If you don’t do anything to stop the sale of this technology, it’s not just going to be 50,000 targets. It’s going to be 50 million targets, and it’s going to happen much more quickly than any of us expect.”
The technology indeed is impossible to kill itself and there’s not much that can be done to counter it but there’s a lot that can be done about the flourishing surveillance industry. The governments must vocally denounce the use and purchase of it, legislate against it and regulate it.
The use of any such technology to muzzle free speech, activism and derailing democracies must be criminalized before the world spirals into the dangerous zone of digital warfare further threatening world peace.