The ongoing Pegasus controversy has exposed bombshell revelations of a covert surveillance system allegedly used in countries, including India, across the globe to target prominent voices of opposition, dissent and critique.
As part of a worldwide collaborative journalistic investigation called the Pegasus Project, top media organisations - including the likes of The Washington Post and The Guardian, and The Wire from India - are reporting on the big leak that has thrown up the names of top politicians, lawyers, journalists and other persons of interest allegedly being snooped on.
The data leak has been sourced to non-profit organisation Forbidden Stories and Amnesty's Citizen Lab.
The Pegasus news break came on Sunday, with the consortium of media houses leading the reportage disclosing identities of personalities listed as alleged potential targets daily. On Monday, July 19, it was reported that top virologist Gagandeep Kang and a woman who had accused ex-Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi were named on the alleged target list. Full report here.
Pegasus Controversy: Here's What's Happening
Pegasus is spyware developed by the Israeli NSO Group and, as reportedly claimed by the developers, is sold only to "vetted governments." The Guardian has called the alleged Pegasus Snoopgate a "global abuse of cyber-surveillance weapon" by "authoritarian governments" across the world.
The ten countries listed as NSO clients in the Pegasus reports include India, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with 'hack targets' present across 45 countries.
Since the Israeli firm specialises in what are cyber-weapons, the spyware can be understood as a "snoop" tool armed with the potential for similar operations. Pegasus can be used to infect and infiltrate Apple and Android mobile devices to hack into private data via apps, which can then be transmitted back to the hacker, with the victim oblivious to the breach.
As per reports by the Pegasus Project collaborators, approximately 50,000 phone numbers have surfaced worldwide as Pegasus 'targets'. However, the number for how many were successfully hacked cannot be ascertained without forensic analysis.
Joanna Slater, India correspondent for The Post reporting on the Pegasus Project, noted, "We found forensic evidence that it
Pegasus first came to national notice in India back in 2019 upon similar allegations over data privacy concerns on WhatsApp.
Prominent Names Listed From India
Indian women on the Pegasus watchlist reportedly include Dr Gagandeep Kang; survivor in the CJI Gogoi case; journalists Rohini Singh, Swati Chaturvedi, Vijaita Singh and Smita Sharma, among others; activist Rupali Jadhav arrested under UAPA.
Shockingly, as many as eleven mobile numbers associated with the former junior court assistant who had accused Gogoi in 2019 of sexually harassing her, were put on the Pegasus target list, as per reports. According to The Wire, Kang was allegedly put on the spy list back in 2018 around the time of the Nipah virus outbreak in India.
The BJP's prime political contender and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's name was revealed as a potential surveillance target on Monday, along with political strategist Prashant Kishor and Union Ministers in the Modi government including newly appointed IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who dismissed the Pegasus reports in Parliament the same day, and Lok Sabha member Prahlad Singh Patel.
What Is The Indian Govt Saying?
Ministers currently and formerly in the central government have issued strong criticisms of the Pegasus Project reports. Vaishnaw, on the opening day of the Parliament's Monsoon Session, said, "Many over-the-top allegations made around this story... The press reports appeared a day before the monsoon session of Parliament. This can’t be a coincidence."
"Any form of illegal surveillance is not possible with the checks and balances in our laws and robust institutions," he added.
His predecessor, Ravi Shankar Prasad, has criticised the Pegasus reports, saying, "Can we deny that bodies like Amnesty had a declared anti-India agenda in many ways?" dubbing it a "conspiracy" against India. During the 2019 Pegasus outcry, Prasad, then with the IT portfolio, had said "no unauthorised interception" took place.
The NSO too has denied the recent Pegasus reports, saying they are full of "uncorroborated theories."
What Are The Implications Of Targeted Surveillance?
The direct consequence of surveillance of such scale as is being claimed by the Pegasus Project is the staking of citizen privacy, data possession and online safety. Though governments have previously employed spying techniques in cases of national security or to keep tabs on terrorist targets, a watchlist of voices speaking for human rights, in public service or protest can potentially suppress any form of dissent, endangering the right to free speech and privacy.