The last Pegasus ride didn’t end well. Politicians must take note

There was a large flower vase on our table and we promptly asked the waiter to remove it. It was too big, we said, and we were going to share our food and it would get in the way. He took it away, but kept it on the edge of the table next to ours, as if it didn’t want to be left out. At the table next to ours, two men sat. They hardly spoke to one another. They spent the entire duration of our three-hour lunch sipping tea.

You didn’t need to be a genius to know you were under surveillance. That vase surely had a concealed microphone; the two men were clearly from a local intelligence agency. (They asked for their bill and left once we asked for ours. I asked my friends if we should pay theirs too, but minions of intelligence units aren’t known for a sense of humour).

Another time, in another country in Asia, I was with a colleague investigating human-rights abuses. When we wanted to talk anything confidential, we would go to one of our rooms in the hotel, turn on the television set, raise its volume to a peak, and then talk to one another, to prevent bugs from listening in. Yet another time, in another country which was under a notorious dictatorship, as I was checking in, an alarmed receptionist stuttered as she told me my room was not ready yet. Naturally, I assumed; the electronic devices in my room had to be checked and activated first.

Journalists and defenders of human rights aren’t shocked when they discover that they are under surveillance. What they are angry about is what they can’t control—the ability of NSO Group’s malware Pegasus to act as a Trojan horse, possibly manipulating what’s on their infected devices, and, in some instances, as alleged, loading them with files and documents that users know nothing about but could implicate them.

A friend who worked at an international broadcasting network had told me this in my early reporting days in Asia: Assume that every phone conversation you have with anyone is monitored. It made my life simple. It was annoying; it led us to think of innovative ways to meet dissidents and speak sometimes in coded language that yielded elegant metaphors about the sinister things governments do. One opposition leader once told me how singing parrots can get used to gilded cages and the music suffers.

India was different, I used to think. True, we had endured the horrendous Emergency, but it was short-lived, an aberration. India had robust opposition, vibrant civil society, independent judiciary, and vigilant media, we told ourselves, feeling smug.

And now Pegasus has come to gag us. NSO, the company that makes the malware, claims its product protects society against terrorism. But governments are using it to snoop on their own citizens—and what a sad group of countries it is, of which India is now allegedly a part. According to reports, the malware can access private correspondence, documents, and photographs, and, as a forensic examination of some computers of those accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case shows, can make changes on their devices.

Once at the Stockholm Internet Forum, then Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said that if you live in a democracy, you should not worry about surveillance. A robust democracy, he insisted, would have checks and balances so that such powers are not misused. A human rights scholar was prompt to note that if you monitor your own citizens, you are not a democracy.

And that is where we are now. We don’t know who ordered the deployment of Pegasus; under whose authority the decision was made; how much was paid for it; who was targeted and who vetted that list; how targets were chosen; what threat they were seen to represent and what legal oversight was in place; and why such a list would include a virologist, a woman who had accused the Supreme Court’s chief justice of sexual harassment, a journalist writing about the murder of an Adivasi, and human rights activists and defenders— and why, indeed, opposition leaders?

The list of those reportedly under surveillance is intriguing. It includes critics of the government, those who may have no opinion on the current administration, and even those who are presumably supporters, though it does not feature some known critical voices. There may be some method to that madness. A red herring tossed around could throw anyone off trail.

Journalists, human-rights activists, lawyers, academics and other ‘persons of interest’ aren’t naïve. They know that someone somewhere is always watching them.

In Greek mythology, Pegasus was the winged horse born from the blood of Medusa who had snakes in place of hair. Bellerophon managed to ride the horse, but when he attempted to soar with the horse and fly to heaven, he was thrown off. That should serve as a cautionary tale for politicians who think they can tame the beast they unleash.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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