Chapter Eleven: With resurfacing of Pegasus Spyware, Indian democracy embroiled in surveillance

We are shocked and deeply concerned with the recent revelations around the usage of Pegasus Spyware. Because for people and organisations like ours who are constantly working on enabling digital connectivity for the unconnected and marginalised, every such negative news is a disabler of digital empowerment. And for the last couple of years we have been constantly fighting phenomena like online misinformation and Fake News; misuse of people’s data for monetisation; use of public data for surveillance; internet shutdowns; prevalence of online trolling and harassment and similar such news lead to apprehension.

And, now we have this evil usage of spyware jeopardising people’s privacy and life as well as democracy, which is the biggest story in the domain of technology, internet rights and privacy this week — Pegasus ​​spyware by Israel’s NSO Group. The story surfaced when global reports showed how the spyware has been used to spy on journalists, ministers and activists. The tool is reportedly capable of completely extracting the data from one’s phone, including calls and texts. A closer look of the people who are being surveillanced reveals an interesting character –– crushing dissents with all possible might. In the face of pervasive surveillance, India must work on reforming surveillance mechanisms.  

Before delving into Pegasus’ past and contemporary situation, it becomes imperative to delve into explainer all about the working of this spyware. Read these explainers to grasp the issues:

For Hindi readers, NDTV has succinctly decoded the Pegasus story. Watch here:

The saga of Pegasus has resurfaced which implies that unfortunately this has not been a one-time phenomenon that the world is witnessing. One of the examples is from the year 2018 when Jamal Kashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Saudi Royal Family, was assassinated which brought to light the usage of Pegasus Spyware by the Saudi Arabia government. 

And in India’s case, the country came to know about pegasus spyware in 2019 when WhatsApp notified academicians, lawyers, Dalit activists and journalists about their numbers being targeted and compromised by Pegasus for a period of two-weeks in the month of May in same year. Those targeted included Anand Teltumbde, one of the 11 activists-scholar who is under arrest for alleged involvement in the Bhima Koregaon case; anti-caste activist Rupali Jadhav, among others. One of the four lawyers that were also targeted was the Nagpur-based human rights lawyer Nihalsing Rathod.

However, this time Amnesty International collaborated with The Wire and 16 other media organisations, and forensically examined the phones of 10 Indians, all of which showed signs of either an attempted hack or a successful compromise. 

One of the potential snoop target was also a woman, employee of the Supreme Court, who accused the former CJI Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in April 2019. This particular case not only raises questions over privacy of individuals, rather on gender justice as well. Understand the entire case here: 

Apart from investigating the story of targeted privacy violations, Amnesty has also prepared a toolkit on how one can detect and/or keep their phones safe from such spyware. This must not be missed out, read the full report here.

In chapter nine of TypeRight, we explored how the very ambitious project Bharat Net has fallen due its failure in implementation. Indian Express reports that Bharat Net, “aims to connect all the gram panchayats and, subsequently, villages to high-speed optical fibre-based internet is running behind schedule in both phase one and phase two of its implementation”.

Congress raised this issue and while flagging the preliminary CAG report which pointed out the irregularities in the BharatNet Project, has called for a probe in the matter.  

Well,  the issues of the pandemic world are just not seeming to stop. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown took toll on everyone’s lives, including the visually challenged students who couldn’t access the scanned copies of the books by physically visiting the libraries or the government of India’s Sugamya Pustakal; facing mental illness issues etc. Delhi University’s Delhi School of Social Work joined hands with the Blind Relief association of India to the visually impaired community. Read Times of India’s story here:

Meanwhile, DEF continues to work towards digital inclusion, accessibility and rights. Catch the founder and director of DEF at this engaging panel discussion titled ‘Geopolitics and the Internet: The Role Technology plays in Global issues’ organised and moderated by Software Freedom Law Center India.

DEF Dialogue’s Season two’s episode 13 is here. Tap on the link to watch how Karnataka’s Kollegal is coping up with Covid-19 second wave, vaccination drive and so on.

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TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad, is a weekly conversational bulletin curated through the news and discussions on social media as well as what's happening on the ground. Through the eyes and ears of Digital Empowerment Foundation across rural India and global south, TypeRight aspires to focus on bringing the contextual relevance of digital technologies and developments on the society - both connected and unconnected.