Chapter Eighteen: Pegasus, Propaganda, Privacy and Pretence.

Remember the Pegasus scandal? We'll forgive you if you don't, the mainstream media has worked hard to ensure everyone forgets it. In summary, news organisations across the world published stories which revealed that an Israeli software named Pegasus was used by a various national governments to snoop on a variety of people.

In India, the list of people includes but is not limited to bricks from every pillar of India's democracy-Journalists, Opposition Politicians, Election Commission Chairperson, the woman who had accused the then Chief Justice of India's Supreme Court of sexual harassment and her entire family.

 Software like Pegasus not only records calls, but also records every key stroke every file, every thing that appears on your phone screen no matter how briefly. It doesn't stop there. It is able to audio and video record everyone around you even in your most private spaces. Finally, it can also be used to plant files on your phone that you did not put there.

All these combined when used against authorities like India's Election Commissioner can cause a lot of harm to India's democracy. What is democracy? Democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people. Democracy is the heart and soul of a nation. It is the nation.

Lawyer Dushyant writes:

"The ability of the government of a country to use a software like Pegasus against its citizens is, in effect, the complete and total annihilation of the Constitution and the basic structure. If the most private and intimate parts of a Supreme Court judge’s life can be accessed by politicians, then independence of the judiciary is dead. Access to an Opposition political leader’s life means Parliamentary democracy and federalism are dead. Access to journalist’s phone means an independent press is dead......There can be no moral counter-argument or alternate view to this. Anyone who defends the use of Pegasus - ask them to publish every single file on their phones and their internet histories on the internet, and then give the world 24x7 video and audio access to their lives.

We have previously discussed Pegasus here. We are reproducing an excerpt in the form of a screenshot:

Screenshot of Chapter 13 of TypeRight

Multiple petitions have been filed before the Supreme Court of India wherein, inter alia, petitioners allege that the use of Pegasus against them has violated their privacy; that the use of software like Pegasus is detrimental for India's democracy and that therefore the Supreme Court must form an independent investigation committee to investigate the matter. On the last date of hearing in the case the Supreme Court had given time to the Government of India (GOI) to file an affidavit containing its comments on the matter. Today, the government refused to do this citing 'national security'.

On the last date of hearing in this case the government had said that it is happy to appoint a committee to "dispel any wrong narrative spread by certain vested interests”.

This is quite remarkable isn't it? While many other governments across the world have launched investigations in the matter, the Indian government has decided that the only problem is "wrong narrative" and therefore the only thing that needs focus is this narrative. When the government has already come to this conclusion what can be expected from any committee appointed by it? This approach has precedent in the arrest of those who complained about Oxygen Shortage, those who protested against the recent laws affecting India's agriculture and many similar examples.

One of the court's observations in response to the argument about national security deserves reproduction in full:

"The question of national security arose at the previous date also. We clearly said that nobody is interested in the disclosure of anything, in court or on any other platform, which may tend to raise an issue of national integrity or national security, whether external or internal. That is a very sensitive issue. And we are all concerned about it. The only limited affidavit that we expected you to file was that- there are citizens who are before us alleging the violation of the right to privacy under Article 21, and if you can clarify in your affidavit that these rights are not been violated, and if those have been violated, whether there is permission by the requisite agency, or if there is no permission, has it been done by an outside agency. That it is your concern also and everybody's concern also- if outside agencies are to snoop, interfere, spy into private phones. We are only on the limited class of citizenry who are alleging the violation of the right to privacy. National security, we will definitely keep in mind that it cannot be subject matter of the present proceedings"

The entire exchange inside court has been reported in full by LiveLaw.com.

While in the Supreme Court the Central Government says that the matter is one which involves national security, in the Parliament the government says that discussion on the matter can not be allowed since there is a case pending before the Supreme Court!

Apar Gupta, the Executive Director of the Internet Freedom Foundation summed it up well:

At this juncture, we would also like to share with our readers the story of a case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. This was the case of a man named Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn ("Abu Zubaydah"), admittedly detained and tortured by the Chief Intelligence Agency (CIA)- America's premier foreign intelligence service in prisons inside and outside America. Zubaydah went to American courts seeking documents from the American architects of certain torture techniques. The government asked the court to reject his petition on grounds of national security. In its judgment delivered in the year 2019, the court disagreed with the government. You can read the entire judgment here. We will reproduce a small excerpt from it:

"…we emphasize the importance of striking “an appropriate balance… between protecting national security matters and preserving an open court system. While it is essential to guard the courts from becoming conduits for undermining the executive branch’s control over information related to national security, these concerns do not apply when the alleged state secret is no secret at all, but rather a matter that is sensitive or embarrassing to the government. In other words, the rationale behind the state secrets privilege is to protect legitimate government interests, not to shield the government from uncomfortable facts that may be disclosed or discussed in litigation. Protecting the former is an unfortunate necessity in our complicated world of national and international affairs. Protecting the latter is inconsistent with the principle of an independent judiciary.”

But you don't need to read about court cases that most people may not have heard about before. We'll point you to something that is far better known. Only one President in America's history found himself compelled to resign. Richard Nixon. Why? Because he tried to snoop/spy on the office on the main opposition political party in America. Then he tried to hide the fact that he had done this. American institutions ejected him and protected America's democracy. These events are famously known as the WaterGate Scandal.

Coming back to the hearing on Pegasus in India's Supreme Court, the court, visibly irritated with the Central Government's failure to file an affidavit, declared that it would be passing interim orders in a few days.

Some comment on the national security argument of the government is opposite. The government says that Pegasus is linked to national security. We most certainly and vehemently agree. A matter which reveals that India's elections, its judiciary, its journalism and its Press freedom are in danger in the most horrifying way, is a security threat to all that Indians hold dear. It is a threat to all that Indians declared sacrosanct in the constitution of India. India's constitution, India's institutions and India's citizens are the nation. Any illegal surveillance threatens this nation. Whether such surveillance was conducted and whether its purpose was national security or political security of certain political actors as is being alleged can only be revealed once an independent probe is conducted.

India is not the only nation rocked by the Pegasus scandal, many others like France are.

Is France not concerned about its national security? Sunlight is the best disinfectant, let there be light.

P.S: As we work on this chapter, there has been a fresh development


Digital Divide

There are two stories this week about the cruel cost of over reliance on Digital solutions and the failure to think about the most vulnerable communities that we want to draw your attention to.

The first

The second

It is necessary to point out here that 99% of discussion and policy making about digital solutions to public welfare problems pretend that everyone has access to the internet and that biometric identification is the best solution available for any challenge that requires equitable distribution of welfare. This approach besides being patently cruel and discriminatory, goes completely against the talisman prescribed by Mahatma Gandhi.

As we have said many times, there is another problem that widens Digital Divide and India is the worst offender in the world as far as this problem is concerned: shutting down the internet. This time the cause was Farmers who have been protesting across several states. Not only did the government shut down the internet but it also closed off sms services.

Big Tech 

When many Big-Tech platforms were first launched, few could have imagined that they would be the cause of an endless flood of misery.

At least two American law makers have written to Amazon and demanded that the platform stop selling products which are spreading misinformation about the pandemic.

Facebook appears to have decided that there isn't enough danger to privacy in the world.

Facebook claimed that these glasses had been given a certificate of innocence by privacy groups. Turns out most of these groups are funded by... Facebook itself.

Big Tech has completely annihilated any remnants of a free marketplace of ideas. Now the only ideas consumed by people are those which algorithms and in many cases governments choose.

Everyday brings a new story about Big Tech exercising bias, sometimes to help autocratic governments and at other times:

There are four kind of lies- lies, damned lies, statistics and the claims about privacy made by Big Tech. Can Whatsapp read your chats? On your phone a message tells you it can't. Turns out, it can and does.

All the super powers at the disposal of Big Tech appear to vanish when hate speech needs to be countered.


 Adventures of Digital Empowerment Foundation

Read about Aslam of Rajasthan’s Ladmka village, who after becoming DEF’s Soochnapreneur used his entrepreneurial skills to enhance his livelihood.  

 Read the story of Jyothi of Karnataka, who after losing her job due to pandemic turned to digital literacy training and has successfully become an entrepreneur.

Deepika who always wanted to learn embroidery, finally got to realise her dreams through the training conducted at DEF’s Smartpur centre.

We are a contributing partner in the UNICEF’s Young Warrior Movement that aims to engaging young population towards helping the country recover from the current on-going pandemic. 

 Digital Empowerment Foundation wishes you a very happy  International Literacy Day!

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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.