The Pegasus scandal is a matter of grave concern for Indian democracy. The widespread and unaccountable use of surveillance is morally disfiguring. Privacy is not about the wish to hide, as is often asserted. It is about having a space of one’s own where our thoughts and being are not the instrument of someone else’s purposes. It is an essential component of dignity and agency. So surveillance needs to be treated as a moral affront. Pegasus is a chilling software. It is not just eavesdropping on conversations; it can be used to access the entire digital imprint of your life. It renders helpless not just the owner of the phone hacked but everyone who is in contact with them.
In this particular scandal, the institutional stakes for Indian democracy are very high. For starters, the allegation that the phones of the woman who had complained of sexual harassment against a former Chief Justice, and her family, might have been subject to this form of surveillance is chilling. The Supreme Court handled the matter in an extraordinarily sordid way, violating procedural propriety and natural justice. If the shadow of Pegasus also hangs on the case, the court will be seen not just as an error-prone institution, but one whose proceedings are possibly impacted by shadowy surveillance. This is a serious charge and should not be made lightly. But for the same reason, this suspicion needs to be removed as emphatically as possible.
The second big institutional stake is the integrity of democratic institutions. A system in which political opponents, officials of the Election Commission, and political colleagues could be subject to this kind of surveillance, will inspire less confidence. In some ways, it raises the question of what methods might in future be adopted to turn the course of elections. Are we heading into a whole new territory for manipulating elections, and the institutions that conduct them? That the electoral process has worked so far should not make us complacent about a future where technologies can be deployed by politicians who do not care for any red lines.
The national security implications of these revelations are enormous. The explosive growth of surveillance technology vendors is a global security and human rights problem. It is not primarily China, but democratic states like Israel and UK, that are selling technologies for deepening the surveillance powers of states. There needs to be a global compact, or at least one amongst democratic states, on regulating these technologies. The global scale of this is succinctly made evident in Ronald Diebert’s book, Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society. In 2020, Diebert, of The Citizen Lab, Toronto, had made it clear that India was one of the countries where the number of victims of sophisticated spyware targeting was by far the most of any country in the world and it is very likely that, as he put it in the book, “Indian police and security agencies are heavy users and abusers of NSO’s spyware.”
There is much consternation at the fact that India is a particular object of attention in this investigation. One can concede that other democracies are probably also not virtuous; Edward Snowden might have something to say about the matter. But that does not detract from our disfigurement. Others are probably using sophisticated home-grown surveillance technologies to do their dirty work. If Pegasus is present in India, we stand out because we are part of a club of mostly authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states using this technology. It does not speak well of us as a democracy. It also does not speak well of us as a capable state. If our capabilities are so low that private foreign contractors are rampant, it is probably also an indication that we have no means of protecting ourselves. Pegasus is not just a surveillance tool. It is a cyber-weapon being unleashed on the Indian polity. Even if authorised (which is doubtful), the use of Pegasus poses a national security risk. Who else will have access to that information? How much of geopolitics is now influenced by these shadowy cyber weapons? If so, can we be so blasé about their possible use?
The stakes in the Pegasus affair are high. But the government’s response is mendacious. It is correct in saying that merely a list of names does not prove anything. But at least 10 phones have been found to be contaminated. The issue of the widespread use of NSO in India has been around since 2019. The Citizen Lab in Toronto has been flagging this issue for some time now, across a number of countries. So there is, prima facie, a case that needs to be looked into.
The government is insinuating a conspiracy in these revelations. There is much we don’t know. For example, we don’t know who revealed the NSO lists and why. Maybe the intent behind the whistle-blowing was not benign. That should be looked into. But it is also beside the point. Indian citizens are asking the government to come clean on its own use of NSO, or its knowledge of how Pegasus got onto the phones of prominent Indians. To use its own argument, if it has nothing to hide, why fear a little probing? The deeper danger here is not the motives of the whistleblowers. It is that by not having a credible, trustworthy, accountable institutional process, we have left ourselves vulnerable to the violation of our rights, and the diminishing of our security.
Finally, there will be the standard whataboutery. What about the UPA government’s indiscriminate surveillance of phones, the importing of eavesdropping technologies? To which the short answer is that the “Congress did it” excuse has run its expiry date, and if the Pegasus allegations are true, we are witnessing a qualitatively whole new world of surveillance of citizens. In the context of the crackdown on dissent, this episode has an unprecedentedly ominous feel to it.
Unfortunately, our Parliament is broken, so this channel of accountability is a non-starter. The Supreme Court could force the government to come clean on the narrow issue of the use of Pegasus in India, or the existence of NSO contracts. But its attempts to fix something as simple as the number of vaccines has yielded mixed results. It is likely that l’affaire Pegasus too shall pass, smothered by an aggressive government, and a civil society anesthetised on issues of liberty and national security. Democracy will likely, like Bellerophon, fall off Pegasus’s back.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 21, 2021 under the title ‘The shadow of Pegasus’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express