A break-in that shames and endangers India

In 1983, the well-known Pulitzer Prize-winning US journalist Seymour Hersh wrote a book (The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House) in which he “revealed” that Morarji Desai had worked as a CIA spy. No one in India believed him. Supposedly well-researched allegations by a journalist known for such nation-stirring exposés as the My Lai Massacre, and charges which would have routinely stuck in other cases, were met with almost unanimous contempt and dismissal across India – such was the moral standing of Morarji-bhai, whether in power or not. Morarji Desai sued and lost the case in the US courts on legalese but that loss did not matter as this nation cared not what anyone said of a Prime Minister known for his integrity.

Rahul Gandhi is not too off the mark when he calls this an act of treason. This is the act of deploying a weapon of such destructive power that the homes and private spaces of key people in India are broken into, which is what the spyware built and sold by the NSO group of Israel is designed to do.

Cut to today, and a series of denials, statements and the force of an army of social media accounts fail to give any credibility to a government that is armed with a brute majority in Parliament but has little moral standing in the eyes of many Indians. The divisions it has created, the strife that it has nurtured and the diet of hatred that it has served only go to show and tell that the Pegasus scandal is exactly the kind of ditch that this government would drive the nation into.

Rahul Gandhi is not too off the mark when he calls this an act of treason. This is the act of deploying a weapon of such destructive power that the homes and private spaces of key people in India are broken into, which is what the spyware built and sold by the NSO group of Israel is designed to do. The government has of course denied the reports that have stirred a global alert. Ashwini Vaishnaw, the Minister of Electronics & Information Technology, says illegal surveillance is not possible in India “with the checks and balances in our laws and our robust institutions”. It also leans on the NSO denial, saying: “It is evident that NSO has also clearly rubbished the claims in the report.” Yet, the government is unwilling to categorically state whether it has bought and deployed the NSO-built spyware or not.

India’s ramparts have been breached and the nation’s sovereignty has been put on the line

The argument that the data from this act of illegal snooping was available not to the Israeli company/group that sold the stuff but only to the Indian government that presumably bought and deployed this weapon is frivolous. Consider what the NSO group, which has built and licensed the Pegasus software to select governments, said on July 21: “We do not operate the system, nor do we have access to the data of our customers, yet they are obligated to provide us with such information under investigations… NSO will thoroughly investigate any credible proof of misuse of its technologies, as we always had, and will shut down the system where necessary.”

The NSO co-founder and CEO Shalev Hulio has been quoted by Forbes as saying: “While NSO isn’t actively monitoring what customers do with its technology, the company can get access to log files from customers when it has cause to investigate, allowing the company’s auditors to check what numbers were selected for surveillance.”

This appears to be a case of we can break in but we won’t break in! What this is saying is trust us – we do the right things. And trust is precisely what is missing in this relationship. Apart from internal trust issues in India, who could trust a company that sells software that intrudes into phones without the target having to do anything for the malware to takeover and leak data? Further, this package is sold to other governments without identifying the buyers, while seeking “approval from the export controls unit of Israel’s Ministry of Defense, an unusual decision because at the time the unit only regulated overseas weapons sales,” to quote the Washington Post.

The government can escape the charge of treason if it cooperates across the political spectrum and agrees to an impartial JPC probe. If its hands are clean, nothing is lost and there is everything to be gained from a probe that can record, if required, some of the evidence in private.

Who is to say if the reported hacking by the Indian government, busy settling personal scores and political battles, provided a smokescreen for foreign powers to hack into key powers and positions in India, including listening in to meetings of our highest political and military authorities? Israel may be cateogrised as a friendly power today but it is worth pointing out that its closest ally, the United States, does not allow the software to operate on its shores or on US based phones.

From an outside perspective, the company is more like a military-intelligence collaborator, selling weapons-grade equipment to collaborators it sees as friends, in the long-term strategic interests of its nation. Here is a master controller allowing customers to play their little games and making money on it knowing full well that it can interfere and stop the game when required.

In any case, it should be anyone’s guess that a super-hacker let loose isn’t about to have any boundaries; hacker and hacked are both trapped. In this view, India’s ramparts have been breached and the nation’s sovereignty has been put on the line by a bunch of leaders who continue to plunder the richness and the intangible wealth of India – its democratic traditions, its respect for diversity and the values of togetherness that bind us as one nation. This is why the charge of treason holds.

Here is a master controller allowing customers to play their little games and making money on it knowing full well that it can interfere and stop the game when required.

The picture of the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, holding aloft her smartphone, plastered with brown tape to prevent prying eyes from looking, recording, breaking in is in many ways the picture of India - equally broken, taped and patched. The Chief Minister is not on the list of those allegedly hacked but you don’t have to be on the list to worry. Anyone seeking to protect themselves will have to adopt such rudimentary stopgaps while we ponder how we had reached this low.

The government can escape the charge of treason if it cooperates across the political spectrum and agrees to an impartial JPC probe. If its hands are clean, nothing is lost and there is everything to be gained from a probe that can record, if required, some of the evidence in private. In India, it is time to say “enough is enough”, which curiously is the header of a NSO statement that announced “it will no longer be responding to media inquiries on this matter…”

(The writer is a senior journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)