Spyware Pegasus looms large over civil liberties and demands global deployment standards

Mayank Chhaya-


If people and institutions were targeted in India for specific political and personal motives, then it is a huge problem that goes to the very heart of individual civil liberties and hence democracy itself

NSO Group, the Israeli company which created and licenses the mobile phone spyware Pegasus, is not only doubling down on rejecting the core assertions in media reports about egregious surveillance by at least eleven governments around the world – among them reportedly India though the government has strongly denied this –  but even saying it will no longer entertain media inquiries about the controversy.

The company has argued that the reporting is a “planned and well-orchestrated media campaign led by the nonprofit Forbidden Stories and pushed by special interest groups.” In a statement yesterday a spokesperson was quoted as saying, “In light of the recent planned and well-orchestrated media campaign led by Forbidden Stories and pushed by special interest groups, and due to the complete disregard of the facts, NSO is announcing it will no longer be responding to media inquiries on this matter and it will not play along with the vicious and slanderous campaign.”

Essentially what the media is being told is to make a distinction between the company licensing the spyware to a client, which is apparently always a government, and the way that client/government may choose to use/misuse/abuse it.


Technology a double-edged sword

Many technologies are a double-edged sword. They cut both ways. In the case of Pegasus, it can do all of what the company says it can, namely “save lives, help governments around the world prevent terror attacks, break up pedophilia, sex, and drug-trafficking rings, locate missing and kidnapped children, locate survivors trapped under collapsed buildings, and protect airspace against disruptive penetration by dangerous drones.”

That is the ostensible purpose for which governments buy the license. However, and this is massive however, the fundamental attraction of Pegasus is obviously its ability to surveil for reasons and in categories that do not fall under those listed above. Instead, they enter the political and personal realms. There is hardly any doubt that governments that have bought the license, including apparently India, would have deployed it outside the ambit of what NSO says they are supposed to.

In this context, the company statement says here, “NSO is a technology company. We do not operate the system, nor do we have access to the data of our customers, yet they are obligated to provide us with such information under investigations.”

That NSO customers are “obligated” to provide them information under investigations is the operative part. It is not clear whether it happens at all or happens erratically and with great reluctance. That is where the rub lies. It also says, “NSO will thoroughly investigate any credible proof of misuse of its technologies, as we always had, and will shut down the system where necessary.”


Violation of civil liberties 

If people and institutions were targeted in India for specific political and personal motives, then it is a huge problem that goes to the very heart of individual civil liberties and hence democracy itself. It is highly debatable whether we will ever get the full measure or even any substantive measure of whether Pegasus has been deployed in India and if so on whose phones and why.

For instance, if Congress Party grandee and Member of Parliament Rahul Gandhi was targeted with this hacking tool, it begs an explanation why. Did he meet any of the threat criteria that NSO says Pegasus is supposed to counter? The question is valid for any of other names mentioned as Pegasus targets in India.

It is very important that we know that NSO has created guardrails that compel governments to be forthcoming about whether its spyware is being used for reasons that clearly violate individual civil liberties.

It is anybody’s guess whether there would be any acknowledgment by the Modi government – the government has hotly rejected any such insinuation –  whether there was indeed such surveillance ordered and carried out officially. If that turns out to be the case, then even NSO would have to consider “thoroughly” investigating it for any misuse and “shut down the system where necessary.”


Little outrage among ordinary citizens 

Anecdotally, the reaction among ordinary citizens to these pernicious intrusions into individual civil liberties has been rather muted. The outrage is limited to those who are seen as the elite in India. That is disturbing because Pegasus can be deployed just as easily on ordinary citizens’ phones for reasons which are downright personal and vindictive.

There ought to be greater outrage against the practice even if so far the use appears to be against public figures whom ordinary Indians, particularly those who support the Bharatiya Janata Party government, detest along partisan lines and therefore would have no compunctions if their liberties and privacy were so flagrantly violated.

They should remember that at some point in the near or not-so-near future there will be a government of a different ideological hue and they too could easily use the same spyware against those who are choosing to be indifferent or even acquiescent.

Broadly, the stunning disclosure by Forbidden Stories and a host of international media has set off a debate about whether a piece of software so powerful and sophisticated as Pegasus that can not only access all data on mobile devices but effectively turn them into a version of an electronic ankle bracelet should be allowed to be traded. Edward Snowden, a former contract specialist deputed to America’s National Security Agency (NSA) who exposed the agency’s extraordinary intrusive capabilities and had to eventually flee the country to, ironically, live in Moscow, has called for an end to such software altogether.

However, as with any technology, there is next to no prospect that a piece of spyware like Pegasus will ever go away. If anything, its iterations might get even more intrusive. With that as the backdrop, there ought to be global standards for all governments which limit such unfettered surveillance only to countering serious crimes. Any governmental or other misuse/abuse should become a violation of fundamental human rights.

Courtesy: www.southasiamonitor.org

(The writer is a Chicago-based journalist, writer and filmmaker who hosts Mayank Chhaya Reports on YouTube and elsewhere. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at