Home minister Amit Shah has said the reports of alleged surveillance on a group of Indians, including some 40 journalists, are part of a choreographed attempt to defame India. The list of persons, believed to have been targetted through the use of Pegasus, a spyware, also includes ministers, MPs, Opposition leaders, senior judges, civil servants, industrialists; in fact, Dalit activists arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon matter find a mention. The findings are part of a larger global investigation and whatever the perception of the government, the revelations are disturbing.
The truth can only be unearthed only by an independent and credible inquiry. In a democracy like ours, it is necessary to know whether the government purchased the Pegasus spyware or whether someone else did. This is particularly relevant since NSO, the Israeli company that manufactures the spyware, says its 51% of its customers are intelligence agencies, 38% are law enforcement agencies while 11% of the purchases are made by the military services.
As has been pointed out, the product is highly sophisticated and can be planted into mobile phones surreptitiously; the software absorbs all data on the infected device, apart from tracking conversations. Therefore, it does not come cheap; in fact, it is prohibitively expensive which suggests only those with substantial financial resources can afford it and put it to use for long periods. To be sure, this is not the first time such allegations of the Indian government using the Pegasus software have been made. However, this time around, there appears to be a lot more tangible evidence of phones having been broken into; the list of those targeted has been released following a multi-national investigation by entities including cybersecurity specialists, media organisations and Amnesty International. Consequently, the matter merits a thorough investigation.
If we are indeed the robust democracy we claim to be, the government should have no qualms whatsoever, in facilitating an impartial probe. It is somewhat intriguing that many of those who figure on the list are known to have a just about cordial relationship with the BJP-led NDA government, and there are several who probably have a less-than-cordial one. That Ashok Lavasa, who was posted in the CEC till recently, finds mention is worrying in the list of people affected; even more troubling is the presence of family members of a lady who had accused the former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual misconduct. As of now, we know of two Union ministers on the list; the rest are journalists, businessmen, social activists, Opposition leaders including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
The point is that spying on people, without adequate reason and proof—of suspected terrorist activity, for instance—is not a matter to be taken lightly. It would be naïve to assume that such malpractices are not being indulged in altogether, although it is against the law for private parties to do so. Even where government agencies are concerned, one is not sure spying on individuals through mobile phones is authorised only when there is good reason and proper processes are followed.
Unfortunately, the personal data protection law remains a work-in-progress; the Bill is not expected to be taken up for consideration in the monsoon session. More pertinently, one is not sure that when it does emerge, it will ensure right to privacy and protect individuals against potential misuse of civil liberties. Before that, however, the government must initiate a proper probe into the Pegasus Project; the findings are frightening and the onus is on the government to reassure us that our privacy is not being compromised.