Pegasus Snooping: Latest Instance of Deficient Indian Democracy

T K Arun

The governments denial of ‘unauthorised surveillance’, even though it has scrupulously avoided asserting that no Indian security agency has purchased Pegasus, and its refi1s a/to discuss the spying scandal in Parliament indicate that it may be twisting the definition of democracy as we know it.

Deficient democracy has made its presence felt in India in many forms and terms, associated with many images – some colourful, mostly grim. The Emergency is an easy, obvious example. Communal violence and caste atrocities are staples. A sipper denied to an ailing 84-year-old undertrial is a more recent one. Pegasus, a piece of military-grade snooping software, exported from its home country of lsrael only with a defence export licence from the government, and only to state agencies, is the latest.

Raids by income tax authorities on owners of newspapers that report diligently on the government’s failure to tackle the pandemic, the systematic electronic eavesdropping carried out on hundreds of people via infection of their phones with the super smart Pegasus software and the government’s persistent refusal to have a discussion in Parliament on the subject, all reflect the self-same malady: a serious deficiency of Vitamin D in the polity, never mind our frequent elections.

In all the stout and loud denial of ‘unauthorised surveillance’ by the government, it has scrupulously avoided asserting that no Indian security agency has purchased Pegasus. Instead, the ruling side has sought to drown the Opposition’s protest over Pegasus with their loud cries of an international conspiracy to derail the Monsoon Session of Parliament, in particular, and to besmirch India’s fair name, in general.

Soon after BJP MPs started to shout ‘conspiracy’, it soon transformed into a potential diplomatic embarrassment. French President Immanuel Macron has ordered an inquiry into the snooping revelations brought out by the Pegasus Project, an investigative collaboration between Paris-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, after a list of some 50,000 people was leaked to them, as being monitored by the Pegasus spyware. Macron figures among the 14 heads of state among those monitored. Is Macron a conspirator against India?

If Snoop you Must, this is How it Should be Done

When the government says there is no unauthorised surveillance, it gives the impression that there is something called authorised surveillance. India’s public discourse has salivated over the contents of the leaked Neera Radia tapes, without any clarity on who authorised surveillance of her phone calls and who leaked them to the media. The fact is that authorisation is a simple task of a joint secretary in the Home Ministry signing off on a list of people to be snooped on, in the midst of many other things that demand his attention.

How carefully they vet the list is anyone’s guess. Pranab Mukherjee, when he was finance minister, discovered that his office had been bugged, thoughtlessly or thoughtfully, we yet don’t know. This needs to change.True, the right to privacy has been attested as a fundamental right, derived from the right to liberty and reinforced by other fundamental rights. But no right is unqualified. The right to privacy can be breached for valid reasons, whether national security or investigation of crime.

US investigative agencies had the authorisation to tap the phone of Raj Rajaratnam, who ran Galleon, a hedge fund, and heard Goldman Sachs director and former McKinsey boss Rajat Gupta pass on information about Warren Buffett’s proposed investment in the firm. While the Snowden revelations of June 2013 showed that America’s National Security Agency had been carrying out widespread surveillance of people, it led to tightening the processes for authorising surveillance in the US.

Any wiretap request has to be backed by a court order. The data gathered and the action taken must be placed before a committee of the US legislature. Spooks, in other words, have oversight by the people’s representatives and are not accountable to the executive alone. India’s system of a joint secretary authorising snooping and being accountable to a senior officer of the same ministry is just not acceptable.

Any snooping must have the backing of a court order. It could be kept secret for the time being, but the order, the reasons for the request, the information gathered and the action taken on it must be placed before a multiparty committee of Members of Parliament. The executive must be accountable to the people’s representatives for the actions it takes in the name of national security. If this change comes about as a result of the Pegasus controversy, there would still be some positive gain from the revelation.

Legal Changes, Smarter Tools to Block Cyber Spying

Most spyware enter phones as Trojans. A Trojan gets its name from the manner in which it enters the victim’s phone or computer. It presents itself in the guise of some harmless, useful piece of software, which the user is induced to install on his phone or computer. The inspiration for the name is, of course, the enormous wooden horse the Greeks left behind outside the city of Troy, seemingly abandoning their 10-year siege in defeat.

The jubilant Trojans heaved the horse into the fortified town, only for the Greek soldiers hiding inside the horse to emerge at night and wreak havoc, throwing open the gates of Troy for the main Greek contingent to enter. Pegasus is a Trojan, except that it does not require the victim to consciously install any program on his machine, phone or computer; it ‘flies’ to its target on its own. Hence the name, Pegasus, the flying horse in Greek myths.

Pegasus should lead to legal changes to regulate snooping and hold spooks to democratic account. It should lead to slashing of the steep 30 per cent commission that Apple and Google charge for purchases  from  the Appstore  or Google Play Store –  these companies  justify  this hefty charge as remuneration for keeping the operating system clean.

They should up their game and prevent Pegasus or other ethereal creatures with roving eyes, entering phones that use their operating systems, and reduce the fees they charge, as a token of humble acceptance of their vulnerability. Indian startups should get busy coming up with sophisticated tools to counter cyber spying.

In conclusion, let us note the irony implicit in a Hindutva government popularising Greek myths among a populace that cannot, for the most part, name the flying horse in Indian myths or the flying elephant, for that matter.

First Published in The Federal Pegasus snooping: Latest instance of deficient Indian democracy on July 31, 2021

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About the Author

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T K Arun, Consulting Editor, The Economic Times, New Delhi.



    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.