Pramod K Nayar
So Pegasus is all over the news. While the current levels and reach of surveillance is practically unlimited, it is not new. As Phillip Knightley, The Times special correspondent and twice winner of the ‘Journalist of the Year’ award, titled his 1987 book, spying and espionage is the world’s second oldest profession.
Even Old Walls had Ears, and Eyes
Spies have been an integral part of the state system. Before we brand all these nefarious activities as ‘Western’, it may be wise to examine spying in various cultures, including the Vedic. In his 1956 essay, “Role of the Secret Service in Ancient India”, historian BK Mazumdar noted how ‘spasas’ (spies) were appointed by Vedic kings to watch over the people. Mazumdar writes:
“The Epic, Puranic, Arthasastra and Dharmasastra literatures of our country refer again and again to spies (caras) and envoys (dutas). The earliest traces of military espionage have become transparent in the period represented by the Ramayana and Mahabharata, both of them being war epics… pies. The Arthasastra of Kautilya is a mine of valuable information in this respect. The Dharmasastras touch upon subject with care and some detail.”
In the Mahabharata, Bhishma advises Yudhishtira:
“He should employ as spies men looking like idiots or like those that are blind and deaf. Those should all be persons who have been thoroughly examined (in respect of their ability), who are possessed of wisdom, and who are able to endure hunger and thirst. With proper attention, the king should set his spies upon all his counsellors and friends and sons, in his city and the provinces, and in dominions of the chiefs under him. His spies should be so employed that they may not know one another. He should also … know the spies of his foes by himself setting spies in shops and places of amusement, and concourses of people, among beggars, in his pleasure gardens and parks, in meetings and conclaves of the learned, in the country, in public places, in places where he holds his own court, and in the houses of the citizens. The king possessed of intelligence may thus ascertain the spies despatched by his foes. If these be known, the king may derive much benefit…”
Christopher Andrew in his mammoth history, The Secret World: A History of Spying (2018), traces the system’s growth in ancient China, and in its ur-text, The Art of War, which produced a taxonomy of spies. Andrew also observes that “The Christian Old Testament (the Jewish Tanakh) contains more references to spies than any history of Britain or of most other countries”. Andrew cites references to Moses’ spying operations as well:
And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said unto them, “Get you up this [way] southward, and go up into the mountain:
And see the land, what it [is]; and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they [be] strong or weak, few or many;
And what the land [is] that they dwell in, whether it [be] good or bad; and what cities [they be] that they dwell in, whether in tents, or in strongholds;
And what the land [is], whether it [be] fat or lean, whether there be wood therein, or not.”
In Early Modern Europe, travellers were often spies, and they documented the lives, wealth, governance and infrastructure (particularly military) of the countries they travelled through.
Richard Hakluyt, the compiler of England’s first compendium of travelogues, was a geographer and possibly a spy. This compendium, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589-1600), was followed by numerous geographical and historical writings under Hakluyt’s aegis, and served as materials for many authors, including Shakespeare. But these texts were also, clearly, documenting details of other regions for a future travel, exploration and maybe even conquest.
During the Early Modern period, travellers from Europe to other parts of the world documented their journeys and nations visited: to what purpose this information was used is anybody’s guess
If “knowledge is power” as Hakluyt’s contemporary Francis Bacon declared, then knowledge of other nations was the foundation of power over them. When Bacon’s essay “Of Travel” (1625), the scientist Robert Boyle, the philosopher John Locke and others compiled “instructions” for travellers to India, they included such queries as: how is gunpowder made? Tellingly, Boyle’s “instructions for Surat” appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1665-66 and 1666-67, indicating the interest even proto-colonial England took in the “East Indies”, perhaps as a preliminary to more obvious colonisation.
In India, during the 19th century and especially in the period of the “Mutiny”, both the British and the Indians employed spies. The unidentified ‘Angad’, a super-spy of sorts, became legendary during 1857-58, but was never identified.
Spying was a preliminary to arrests, torture and even assassination. Ronen Bergman’s spinechilling history of Israeli intelligence operations, Rise and Kill (2018), documents the history of its assassinations, but also notes how the very foundations of the state were built on surveillance. He records how the original emblem – designed by Charles Duvall (real name Shlomo Cohen-Abarbanel) – of the Mossad had as its legend “For by subterfuge you will make war”, from the Book of Proverbs. This, clearly, set the tone for the future.
During the 19th century and especially in the period of the “Mutiny”, both the British and the Indians employed spies. ‘Angad’, a super-spy of sorts, became legendary during 1857-58, but was never identified
Seeing Becomes Electronic
During the World Wars and later the Cold War, espionage reached extraordinary heights, expectedly. John LeCarre, Alistair Maclean and numerous other popular writers built their careers around the theme of espionage, the Cold War and the “heroes” – of which several were women – of the cloak-and-dagger world.
With the rise of SIGINT (intelligence derived from electronic signals) in the Second World War period, the reach of the government amplified hugely. The USA’s National Security Agency (set up in 1952) states on its website:
“SIGINT provides a vital window for our nation into foreign adversaries’ capabilities, actions, and intentions.
NSA’s SIGINT mission is specifically limited to gathering information about international terrorists and foreign powers, organizations, or persons.”
We know that 9/11 had been predicted by insiders in the US security agencies, but they had little to know with certitude, and in advance, the source of the attacks. As George Tenet, then Director of Central Intelligence, stated:
“It was clear that known A[l] Q[aeda] operatives were involved, but neither our intelligence nor the FBI’s criminal investigation could conclusively prove that UBL [Osama bin Laden] and his leadership had had authority, direction and control over the attack.”
Despite its massive apparatus, there was a failure of the intelligence and spy apparatus. To compensate, the NSA stepped up and permitted surveillance on an unimaginable scale after 9/11.
With the rise of SIGINT (intelligence derived from electronic signals) in the Second World War, the reach of the government amplified hugely
With drones, satellites, the AI-based operations of governments, organisations and even individuals, spying is a more-or-less routine affair. Today, ambient surveillance in the form of the CCTV, swipe cards, loyalty coupons at stores, customer data on shopping portals constitute us as “surveillance subjects” in the age of electronic surveillance.
We now can only become citizens when we have subjected ourselves to surveillance, from Aadhaar to CoWIN.
In fact, we willingly subject ourselves to many of these because to be surveilled is to receive discounts and offers from corporations and suppliers. In other words, we see a convergence between the systematic use of surveillance by the state, the informal surveillance (such as loyalty cards) by corporate bodies, surveillance as a means of enforcing neighbourliness and community-feeling by the residents of a locality, and finally, the heightening of self-surveillance in the medical field with FITBITs and home-devices for sugar, BP and other checks.
Surveillance, which was once a technology of state power, is now ubiquitous, including within its ambit everybody, and extending into domains such as recreation, leisure, reading habits, consumerism in addition to retaining the older ones of law and order.
When Edward Snowden told us in 2013-14 that we are being spied on and that even an ‘accidental’ look at Pornhub gets registered somewhere in the crypts of the National Security Agency, we thought: why would ordinary people be subject to such scrutiny? Although sociologist and the world’s leading analyst on the subject, David Lyon, had argued in Surveillance After Snowden:
“contemporary surveillance grows like mushrooms, and makes ordinary everyday lives increasingly transparent to large organizations.”
The ‘well-meaning aim’ of surveillance, he argues, is to prevent crime and violence before it occurs (what in an earlier book Lyon called, the rise of the ‘safety state’, producing what Torin Monahan called ‘insecurity subjects’ in his book Surveillance in the Time of Security). Lyon cautions that mass, techno-based surveillance,
“does not reassure us we can trust others, particularly some who have been given the responsibility for handling personal information. It actually creates uncertainties, worries and sometimes anger about secrecy and a failure to take due care of things that are precious to us – in this case, our personal details.”
Surveillance is now a cultural belief, an article of faith across the populations, in technological devices and solutions to social issues of deviance, crimes, etc. It is not the device that drives our fears and our sense of the secure, but our fears that demand the making of more such devices and cause us to subject ourselves to more surveillance. A culture of insecurity is put in place, and technological solutions are then offered to make us feel secure.
The original emblem of the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, had as its legend “For by subterfuge you will make war”, from the Book of Proverbs. This, clearly, set the tone for the future
Global Witness Citizens
But surveillance enables a global witness culture, in which citizen participation in humanitarian surveillance has been on the rise.
Citizens reporting on law-makers violating traffic rules, parliamentarians watching porn during the House’s proceedings, whose documented media evidence (made famous with the Rodney King beating and more recently with the George Floyd killing) have altered public perceptions and initiated mass campaigns. Websites like www.witness.org call for citizens to document such violations and humanitarian crises. In the Covid years, 2020-21, images captured by citizens have generated campaigns whether in the form of oxygen supply or food for the patients.
Massive initiatives such as the Satellite Sentinel Project (of which George Clooney was a founding member) under the Enough Project document corruption, death camps, military movements against civilians, riots, among others. The purpose was to transform surveillance into a device to prevent atrocities in some of the most conflict-ridden zones:
“SSP worked to focus global attention on mass atrocities in Sudan and used its imagery and analysis to generate rapid responses on human rights and human security concerns. SSP was the first sustained public effort to systematically monitor and report on potential hotspots and threats to human security in near real-time. Experts at DigitalGlobe, our satellite partner, along with Harvard Humanitarian Initiative officials at the outset of the project, worked with the Enough Project to analyze imagery, data pattern analysis, and information from sources on the ground to produce reports. The Enough Project then released them to the press and policymakers, and sounded the alarm by notifying major news organizations and activists.”
In the process, such surveillance offers a shot at prevention, and helps build a transnational cultural memory of atrocity. It is no longer possible, in this age of surveillance, to claim ignorance of atrocity and disaster. We are no longer spectators, we are witnesses.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)
What is Pegasus
Software made by Israel’s NSO Group
Reportedly a highly invasive tool that can:
- Switch on a target’s phone camera and microphone
- Access data on the device
Believed to have been installed by spear-phishing techniques, as well as more advanced “zero-click” attacks that don’t require owners’ interaction
NSO claims its technology is sold solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of “vetted” governments
Amnesty International reported last June that Moroccan authorities used Pegasus to insert spyware onto the cellphone of Omar Radi, a journalist convicted over a social media post
Citizen Lab reported in December that about three dozen journalists at Qatar’s Al-Jazeera network had their mobile devices targeted by Pegasus malware
A leak of 50,000 smartphone numbers, of activists, journalists, business executives and politicians around the world, has been linked to Pegasus software
The list was shared with news organisations by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit, and Amnesty International. NSO denies wrongdoing. (AFP)
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