In a shocking revelation, the minister of Telecommunication, Government of India faced questions on the Project Pegasus report – a research on the pegasus spyware that has been developed by the Israeli NSO for “vetted government clients” only. It can breach all Windows, Mac, Android and iOS security checks upto iOS 14.6.
The Forbidden Stories group and the Amnesty International with the Wire and the Washington Post revealed that governments, politicians and journalists all over the world have been targeted with more than 300 people in India alone been tracked regularly using the spyware. Allegedly, only 10 out of these 300 people had mobiles with conclusive or clear presence of the software. These 300 people however include journalists, politicians, cabinet ministers and a sitting Supreme Court judge. These numbers and cases are similar in countries like Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Rwanda, Azerbaijan and Hungary.
The first and foremost question ought to be raised against Israel and all governments that are using the spyware, for a spyware is not how a democracy should work in theory. After all, little is left of “democracy” in most nations in the last decade. The second question is why there is an absence of data protection laws in most countries including India, Pakistan and south Asian nations – that house a large part of humanity. The third question is to be raised against the government in India where an official allegedly replied to a question about the spyware by stating that all monitoring, interception and decryption is or shall be carried out as per a “due process of law” which is ironic because there are no such laws in India.
Now, back to the questions that Mr Ashwini Vaishnav, Minister of Telecommunication, India had to answer in the Parliament several hours ago. The minister out right refused any spyware quoting the Binoy Viswam vs RBI case in the supreme court where the WhatsApp Counsel refused any spyware involvement. However, this might actaully be true because the NSO has quite clearly used the term – “vetted governments”. So, speaking per se, no private contractor is involved. However, this conclusion is only one way of seeing things. The author recommends personal discretion and further research as the press conference against Pegasus took place only on the 18th of July 2021. The Minister also pointed out that the NSO uses data and using data should not be equated to surveillance. He also added that surveillance is not possible in a country like India with so many checks and balances.
The author has no opinion that supports or opposes the answers Mr Vaishnav presented today. However, just as a note – surveillance is always illegal in any democracy. It is illegal in the US and yet about 5 years ago, news of massive US surveillance across the globe was made public by leaked documents. Surveillance is almost always carried out by the Executive without intimating the legislature or the public. Many-a-times, even the ruling party is unaware of the realities of the state. What we as a democracy can do is to establish stronger laws against the process and establishing a more transparent mechanism to keep the executive in check.
Finally, this article is based only on the events that unfolded on the 18th of July 2021 and the immediate aftermath on the 19th of the same month. Let us await further investigations and reports to build any conclusive opinion about any institution. However, the need for stronger privacy laws is important anyways, irrespective of the type of state one lives in – especially in a democracy.