The snooping scandal, reflecting the new age authoritarianism, has come back to haunt the world. An international investigation by a conglomeration of media organisations into a massive data leak has revealed that thousands of opposition leaders, human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers have been targeted by governments using hacking software sold by Israeli surveillance company NSO Group. The list includes over 40 Indian media professionals, opposition leaders, a couple of Union ministers and judges. It has emerged that there is a widespread and continuing abuse of NSO’s hacking spyware, Pegasus, which the company insists is sold only to the vetted government agencies and is intended for use against criminals and terrorists. It is shameful that the government agencies have come under the scanner for ordering surveillance of dissenting voices in flagrant violation of the rule of law and the fundamental right of citizens to privacy. What is more disconcerting is that India does not even have a law for the protection of data privacy and the Centre is dragging its feet on the matter. Instead of trying to gloss over the seriousness of the latest media expose, the government must undertake surveillance reforms to protect citizens from illegal hacking and stop using spyware in policing and security. The huge data leak demolishes the lie that innocent people need not fear surveillance by the State. Pegasus is a malware that infects iPhones and Android devices to enable operators of the tool to extract messages, photos and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones.
The mere presence of a phone number in the leaked data does not automatically mean that the device was infected with Pegasus or subjected to hacking. But the presence of their names on this list indicates the lengths to which governments may go to spy on critics, rivals, and opponents. The media consortium suspects that the data is indicative of the potential targets NSO’s government clients identified in advance of possible surveillance attempts. Pegasus is a collaborative reporting project led by the French non-profit organisation ‘Forbidden Stories’ and includes 17 media outlets across the globe. In 2019 too, mobile phones of over 1,400 users across 20 countries, including several Indian political leaders, journalists, lawyers, and human rights activists were hacked by attackers using the same spyware and their data and chats copied. Companies such as NSO operate in a market that is almost entirely unregulated, enabling tools that can be used by authoritarian regimes as instruments of repression. The demand for surveillance spyware services has boomed post-Snowden, whose revelations prompted the mass adoption of encryption across the internet. As a result, the internet has become far more secure, making the mass harvesting of communications much more difficult.