WhatsApp has started rolling out new group privacy settings globally
WhatsApp has started rolling out new group privacy settings globally

The snoopgate is bigger than the Watergate scandal. Supreme Court Judge (retd) B.N. Srikrishna rightly told The Indian Express on Wednesday that he is “extremely alarmed” and expressed fears that “we may be sliding into an Orwellian State with Big Brother snooping on us.”

And yet, it is saddening that neither the Supreme Court nor the Opposition or media (some are unquestioningly plugging the government line) are sufficiently alarmed while the Centre is adopting diversionary tactics like asking WhatsApp to provide “traceability” of messages apparently to wash its hands of the scam.

The disclosure that the Pegasus spyware produced by Israeli cyber intelligence firm NSO Group was used to hack WhatsApp to snoop on its users has kicked up a global storm.

Over a billion phones spread across five continents have reportedly been injected with the surveillance software; the targets included 1400 diplomats, scores of government officials, dissidents, journalists and human right activists; 120-odd Indians also have their phones compromised. Cyber analysts say it is the tip of the iceberg.

WhatsApp said it informed New Delhi in May and September this year about Indians being targeted but the Centre did nothing, a claim refuted by the government. A simple, straightforward question is:

why on earth would an Israeli intelligence firm or any global entity for that matter, want to spy on human right activists in distant Bastar? Or left-liberal academics in Bhima Koregaon, some of them are dubbed anti-nationals and booked under sedition law.

The NSO says it sells its spyware only to governments. According to media NSO charges $650,000 to hack devices besides an installation fee of $500,000 (that works out to roughly Rs 8 crore). The prohibitive cost rules out private players.

Several countries have shopped for the deadly Pegasus virus to track down criminals and snoop on political opponents. Mexico hired NSO to keep a tab on drug peddlers while Saudi Arabia used the malware to snoop on dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was subsequently murdered in Turkey by Saudi operatives.

 A year ago influential and respected Israeli newspaper “Haartez” conducted a global investigation spanning 100 sources in 15 countries to write an article that revealed how Israel has become a leading exporter of tools for spying on civilians.

“Dictators around the world – even in countries with no formal ties to Israel – use them eavesdrop on human rights activists, monitor emails, hack into apps and record conversations….” it said. Haaretz findings confirmed that the spy industries have not hesitated to “sell offensive capabilities to many countries that lack a strong democratic tradition”, even when they have no way to ascertain whether the items sold were being used to violate the rights of civilians.

The testimonies showed that the Israeli the equipment has been used to locate and detain human rights activists, persecute members of the LGBT community, “silence citizens who were critical of their government.”

It is intriguing as to who is interested in spying on Indian human right activists, journalists, lawyers and professors. But going by BJP’s ultra-nationalistic narrative, its closeness to Israeli establishment and the track record of the government on transparency it would not be difficult to make an intelligent guess.

Modi had become the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel (three-day trip in 2017) when he had detailed discussions with his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu on military and cyber-security deals. Israel also helped add teeth to Modi’s security and offered India elite sniffer and attack dogs.

The specially trained Israeli canines are considered the best in the word in sniffing out explosives and booby traps. The same year BJP government in Chhattisgarh reportedly sought NSO help in snooping on certain targets. 

NSO officials visited Raipur and made a presentation to senior police officers on the use of Pegasus software for intelligence tracking. But a deal could not be struck as the spyware supplier quoted an astronomical sum.

Haaretz said Forbes magazine in 2016 termed Pegasus “the world’s most invasive mobile spy kit” as it allows almost unlimited monitoring, even commandeering, of cell phones “to discover the phone’s location, eavesdrop on it, record nearby conversations, photograph those in the vicinity of the phone, read and write text messages and emails, download apps and penetrate apps already in the phone, and access photographs, clips, calendar reminders and the contacts list; and all in total secrecy.”

Like in many other things, India has competition from Pakistan on privacy breach too. Quoting investigative agency Coda, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that the State has been spying on its citizens.

Islamabad acquired a “web monitoring system” from a Canada-based company Sandvine (apparently Israel is non-grata) that has “a documented history of selling its technology to authoritarian regimes for purposes that undermine basic civil liberties.”

Two Parliament standing committees (IT and home) have decided to examine the case and seek explanation from the government; it is surprising that the apex court so far has not taken suo moto cognisance of the scam of such magnitude even though it proactively heard the case of alleged phone tapping of a senior IPS officer and his family members by Chhattisgarh government. 

"What is the need to do like this? No privacy is left for anybody. What is happening in this country? Can the privacy of somebody be violated like this? Who ordered this?” a concerned Justice Arun Mishra sought to know on Monday. 

The apex court has always maintained that privacy is part of the fundamental right to life and liberty and it will not brook the breach of citizens’ privacy. If the Centre is not involved in the purchase of Pegasus spyware as it claims, why has it not filed an FIR? It is high time the government ordered a criminal investigation into the scandal and in the upcoming winter session of Parliament it must pass a comprehensive data protection law to safeguard the rights and privacy of citizens. 

Kay Benedict is an independent journalist.

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