Rajat Sharma

Pegasus spyware: Making allegation is not enough, proof of surveillance is needed

AKB30 There were lots of speculations in political circles on Monday about whether the Modi government snooped on Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, political strategist Prashant Kishor and some journalists. According to Paris-based media non-profit organization Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, spyware Pegasus sold by Israeli NSO Group, was used to conduct surveillance on nearly 300 Indians. It was alleged, the list includes three opposition leaders, two cabinet ministers, a former election commissioner, government officials, scientists, NGO activists, businessmen and lawyers.

Media websites circulated the names of 40 journalists who, it claimed, were put under surveillance. On Monday, the controversy was fanned by a second list of names to allege that Rahul Gandhi, some of his friends and aides, former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa, presently cabinet ministers Ashwini Vaishnaw and Prahlad Patel, and Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee were targeted for surveillance Pegasus spyware. There was pandemonium in both House of Parliament as opposition obstructed Prime Minister Narendra Modi from introducing his new ministers.

The government promptly rejected allegations and claimed that there was “no illegal surveillance”. While Congress demanded Amit Shah’s resignation and a joint parliamentary probe, the Home Minister said, ”Today the monsoon session has started. In what seemed like a perfect cue, late last evening we saw a report that has been amplified by a few sections with only one aim – to do whatever is possible and humiliate India at the world stage, peddle the same old narratives about our nation and derail India’s development trajectory”.

Amit Shah said, “Today I want to seriously say – the timing of the selective leaks, the disruptions (in Parliament) – Aap Chronology Samjhiye! This is a report by the disruptors for the obstructors. Disruptors are global organizations which do not like India to progress. Obstructors are political players in India, who do not want India to progress. People of India are very good at understanding this chronology and connection.”

After the government rejected the allegations made in the reports, questions began to be raised about the authenticity of the reports relating to Pegasus software surveillance. The most interesting part is that the media agency that has leaked the report is itself stating that the mere mention of names does not mean that the phones of the individuals have been compromised by Pegasus spyware. But at the end of the day, nobody could say with authority that the cell phones were put on surveillance or were hacked.

The Israeli company NSO rejected claims made in the reports saying, “we are a technology company, we neither have numbers, nor do we have data, that remains with the client that gets our technology. There is no server or computer with us where data is stored when our spyware licence is given to a customer.” The company said, the claims being made in reports about Pegasus being used for snooping appear to be exaggerated. The company also questioned claims of forensic examinations that showed a breach on the phones.

Electronics and Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said, “India has an established protocol when it comes to surveillance…Any form of illegal surveillance is not possible with the checks and balance in our laws and our robust institutions.”

What is Pegasus spyware? It is a software, you can call it a malicious malware, which is designed to gain access to your device, without your knowledge, gather personal information and rely them back to whoever is using the software to spy on an individual. Pegasus is widely sought because it can hack into iPads and iPhones apart from phones working on Android. It can also turn on a phone’s camera and microphone to capture activity in the phone’s vicinity.

According to NSO product brochure, the spyware can also record conversations on phone and take screenshots of the vicinity without the knowledge of the user. After the spyware’s work is over, it destroys itself on its own. NSO claims that it sells licence of its spyware only to governments, and not to any private buyers. NSO claims the spyware is used only in the interest of national security and to curb terrorism.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, who was Electronics and Information Technology Minister since 2014 till two weeks back, came forward to reject the claims made in news reports. He said, not a single shred of concrete evidence of snooping has been placed in public till now and only charges are being levelled from different directions.

I would like to draw people’s attention to two basic points in this entire controversy: One, to put opposition under surveillance and snoop on conversations of their leaders is against the basic postulate of democracy. To put journalists, political leaders and those from judiciary under surveillance cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be considered acceptable. Two, in order to put curbs on anti-national activities of terrorists, criminals and enemies of the nation, every government has the right to use the tool of surveillance against such elements.

These are the two basic rules which need to be followed. As far as the Pegasus project is concerned, though names of nearly 300 Indians were given, not a single concrete evidence has come out to show whether any cell phone was hacked or put under surveillance, and, that too, by the government. Naturally, when such reports appear in the media, the opposition is bound to raise a hue and cry. But this is not the first time that such allegations of snooping were made in India.

A few days ago, some MLAs supporting dissident leader Sachin Pilot alleged that their phones have been put under surveillance by Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot. When the late Pranab Mukherjee was Finance Minister in Dr Manmohan Singh’s government, he had complained that his office room in North Block was bugged. Secret microphones were found hidden inside his office. In 1990, when Chandrashekhar was Prime Minister, Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi had alleged that Haryana policemen were posted outside his bungalow for surveillance. The Congress withdrew support and Chandrashekhar had to resign. When Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, the then opposition leader L K Advani had named journalists, whose telephones had been put under surveillance. I can quote some more examples from the past.

It is very easy to allege that phones of individuals are being snooped and conversations are being taped, but there must be concrete evidence to back such allegations. Forget the past. In today’s highly technological digital world, it is very easy to trace whether a phone has been hacked or snooped. Evidence of snooping is difficult to erase and it can be traced during forensic examination. Levelling charges of surveillance by mentioning phone numbers from database alone will not do. Nobody will believe until and unless concrete evidence of snooping is placed before the public.

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