Pegasused nation: Big brother syndrome

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
26 Jul 2021
Pegasus spyware in India

The name Philip, derived from Philipose, means “lover of horses”. It is quite natural that I love Pegasus, the mythical horse in Greek folklore, considered an inspiration for poets. The horse with the wings figured in the war flag the British air force used during the Second World War. They could inflict heavy damage on the Germans whose Blitzkrieg earlier could not ruin their spirit.

Today, Pegasus is in the news for reasons that have nothing to do with the winged horse that brought out of the mountain the soul-inspiring waters of Hippocrene with a stroke of its hoof. Instead, it has everything to do with espionage, skulduggery and outright dishonesty.

Spying has always been a part of statecraft. Anyone who has read Kautilya’s Arthashastra knows how many pages he devoted to describing the importance of spying during both war and peace. It also describes the kind of punishment that a spy should be given if he is caught.

Every country has an agency for espionage. The US has its CIA and Russia KGB. India has its own agency for external spying in the name of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Some of the staff posted in embassies and high commissions in the name of military attaches are actually spies, not diplomats. India knows who exactly in the Pakistani mission in New Delhi are from Pakistan’s Inter-state Intelligence (ISI), not the foreign office.

Once an Indian political leader made the blunder of boasting that India had the necessary equipment to listen to every telephone conversation Pakistan’s then President General Pervez Musharraf made. He should have kept quiet and listened to the conversation, instead of disclosing it.

What could have happened, as a result, was that General Musharraf would have changed the phone lines he used and made the new ones foolproof. Needless to say, the loser was India. The incident showed what happened when fools were appointed to key posts, a problem the nation continues to face. Pegasus is an altogether different ball game.

It is a software created by an Israeli company which can be used to collect data from any telephone. A group of newspapers, including the Internet-based “thewire.in”, have obtained information about 50,000 telephone numbers all over the world which are Pegasus-infested.

Once the spyware is installed in a phone, through a remote process, the agency which owns the license can get all the details of the chats made on the phone, the data stored there, including passwords, photographs and videos. In fact, anything and everything that a person did using the phone would be known to the agency. 

This is tantamount to forcing a person to live in a glasshouse where the bedroom and the bathroom are open to prying round the clock. Nobody would like to live in such a house because privacy is as important to human dignity as food and water are to living.

The Israeli company had once clarified that it sold Pegasus license only to governments, not individuals or corporates. If true, this means that the buyer of Pegasus in India was the Indian government. The license does not come cheap. According to a report, the government had to pay as much as $65,000 per iPhone that it wanted to bring on the Pegasus radar. The company has a different rate for android and other phones. The cost of monitoring one iPhone works out to Rs 48 lakh, a huge sum by any standards. Come to think of it, it is the same government which claimed that it did not have money to pay to all the nurses and other frontline health workers who died fighting Coronavirus.

One must admit that every government uses technology to crack secrets. Israel claims that Pegasus has helped avert hundreds of terrorist attacks. In the case of terrorism, if a security agency fails to avert an attack, it will be widely known and condemned but if it succeeds  in averting an attack, nobody will know about it. Therefore, there will be no praise for preventing the attack.

There is no harm in hacking the phones of criminals and terrorists for it can avert attacks like the 9/11 in New York and the 26/11 in Mumbai. Alas, the names of the persons against whom Pegasus has been used are political leaders, social activists and media persons.

There is absolutely no logic for targeting them, except in a secretive state like North Korea.

Whether it was Pegasus or not, telephones of some key persons were tapped in Karnataka before the Congress-JD government was destabilised and the BJP came to power. It is said that when the Congress split in the seventies, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi knew in advance every move made by the Congress president S. Nijalingappa as his driver was her secret agent.

Everyday, he would tell her on a long-distance phone who all Nijalingappa met and with whom he spoke on the phone. The wily lady would make counter-moves to nullify his attempts to turn the tables against her. For all the clandestine help the driver rendered to her, he was taken into the Union Cabinet. He became the Railway Minister. To be fair to him, he was a smart politician who knew which side of the bread was buttered and by whom.

Many years later, her son Rajiv Gandhi created a ruckus when he noticed that some intelligence officers were roaming in the area where he lived and gathering information on who all visited him. Using it as a pretext, he withdrew the Congress party’s support to the Chandra Shekhar Government and it fell like a house of cards.

Today, those in power like Narendra Modi do not need a C. K. Jaffer Sharief to get advance information about the moves made by their rivals. They have Pegasus. One of the numbers against which Pegasus was unleashed belonged to a lady employee of the Supreme Court. She was not involved in any terrorism-related activity like the BJP MP, Pragya Thakur. 

All she did was to show the courage to complain against the attempt to sexually harass her by the then Chief Justice of India, Justice Ranjan Gogoi. How could the CJI have brought her phone under the Pegasus radar without the support of the government? Was it part of a deal, political or legal? Soon after the CJI retired from the Supreme Court, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in an unheard-of manner. Why was her phone and the phones of some of her close relatives tapped using Pegasus? Surely, the state exchequer would have paid the Israeli company for this service. Why should the nation accept the decisions he took after the judge was compromised and the lady was Pegasused?

Though the controversy has brought to a standstill the functioning of Parliament, the government has not come out with a statement on its role in the Pegasus scam. If the Israeli services were obtained, why were they used against political leaders and journalists? Instead of answering such questions in a forthright manner, the government has been speaking in hyperboles.

Nobody wants to know the secrets of the government. Nor does anyone want to know how it collects defence and national security-related information. But the people have a right to know why a poor court employee was targeted. 

The primary duty of a journalist is to bring out the truth and nothing but the truth. The classic definition of news is: “News is something which somebody wants to suppress, the rest is advertisement.” A journalist can function only in a democratic situation. He should be able to gather information in an intelligent manner, vet it and publish it in the public interest. That is how Watergate and cement scandals of yesteryears were reported bringing down the governments concerned.

It is this freedom that the government wants to curtail. By subjecting their telephones to Pegasus-like scrutiny, the government wants to ensure that no story which is against its liking should appear. The Dainik Bhaskar is a multi-edition newspaper, which has a huge circulation by any standard. The Income Tax Department has been unleashed against the newspaper management because it did not hide the deaths of Covid-19  patients in Uttar Pradesh, forcing their kith and kin to throw the bodies into the Ganga.

Gopikrishnan J is one journalist whose phone had Pegasus software running in it. He works for The Pioneer. It was he who scooped the 2G scam. Of course, the ruling BJP took full advantage of his report to drive the Congress party to a corner and come to power.

The ruling party fears that Gopikrishnan might do something similar against the NDA government. A good journalist has no political affiliation, strong enough to kill his journalistic instinct. He is eternally in pursuit of a good scoop. Nothing is more precious for a journalist than a good scoop. They are remembered for the scoops, not the size of the car they move in or the house they live in. The government knows this. That is why Pegasus was used against many journalists.

The snooping is against all the canons of ethics. It is also against the freedom the Constitution grants to the citizens by virtue of which the journalist functions. Incidentally, journalists in India do not enjoy any special power like in the USA. They can be legally forced to disclose their source. Of course, they can deny it at the risk of their life.

Pegasus is capable of doing many worrisome things. Not just letting the government know what a person has been doing. It can also be used to plant invidious and incriminating things into a person’s computer or phone. This is even more dangerous than just prying.
In the book ‘Defenders of the Establishment’ by KS Dhillon, easily the best biography of the Indian police system, the author mentions two types of policemen. One who knows that a person is guilty but does not have the proof to prove him guilty. He may cook up evidence to get him convicted. He can be called the good cop.

The other policeman knows that the person is innocent but he creates evidence against him for his own glory or at the bidding of some higher authority. He can be called the bad cop.

Most people in this country believe that an innocent senior citizen was virtually “killed” by the establishment when Fr Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest, died at a private hospital in Maharashtra, while he was in judicial custody. His computer was snatched from him by the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

He knew there was nothing in the computer that could implicate him in the Koregaon violence case of 2018. However, the NIA told the court that it had found incriminating evidence against him in his laptop. The priest believed till his last breath that whatever incriminating evidence was there was planted by the NIA. Remember the definition of the bad cop by KS Dhillon!

The ability to plant evidence in the phone or laptop is what makes Pegasus deadlier. Why should a democratically elected government spend millions of US dollars to buy a software that can be used against its own citizens. Opposition leaders are not the only ones targeted by the government.

The government has targeted some of the ruling party’s own leaders too. This is not surprising. In fact, I would not be surprised if the Home Minister uses Pegasus to tap the prime minister’s own phone. That is what happens when nobody trusts anybody. 

In the Kautilyan scheme of things, the King should not feel comfortable with anyone, for he can be a potential threat. So brothers would spy on brothers, husbands on their wives and vice-versa.

It is a similar kind of scenario that George Orwell describes in his celebrated novel ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’. It describes a state where the ruler knows every secret in the country because no conversation happens without it being listened to by the Big Brother.

Has India descended to such a state where the people have no right except to eat and sleep? That is the question Pegasus has raised. Will the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the government using Pegasus against innocent citizens ever be known?

ajphilip@gmail.com

Pegasus Spying Espionage RAW CIA KGB ISI Spyware Pegasus News Issue 31

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