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Pegasus - Invasion of Personal Liberty?

by Chandrika Singh

Picture Credits: The Quint

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, described it best [1]

There is a sacred sphere of privacy for every man and woman- a realm in which they exercise their essential rights and liberties, which must not be intruded on by any entity whatsoever. This is relevant in the light of the current Pegasus onslaught on “free individuals across 11 countries: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).”

The Pegasus Protrusion

The Pegasus Project has triggered thumping brouhaha and rightly so. It is a Global collaborative journalistic investigation by 17 media organizations across the world with the Paris-based non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty Security Lab at its helm. They have accessed a large pool of databases which includes close to 50k phone numbers of several individuals across states, including journalists, politicians, academicians, lawyers, and human rights activists. These people feature in the database of the target of Pegasus spyware snooping.

Pegasus is a malware classified as spyware, crafted by the NSO Group, an Israeli technology firm. The egregious software allows for remote smartphone monitoring, surreptitiously unlocks the contents of a target's phone, and turns it into a listening device. Even the most recent models of iPhones are vulnerable to these kinds of "zero-click" attacks, as they are known in the surveillance industry.

It is pertinent here to note that without forensic analysis of the phone by organizations it is not possible to determine whether the instrument was successfully infected with Pegasus but after Amnesty Lab did a sampling of a few of these phones they found that attempts were made on some while some were successfully hacked. Hence, the leaked list is of the "potential targets".

A deeply sinister nexus or an apparatus to counter-terrorism?

Interestingly, the curtain has been lifted on a global surveillance ring as those included in the listed range from someone as illustrious as the King, the President, the PM who shape the destiny of a nation to the nickel-and-dime civilians. Nonetheless, the governments have not come out vociferously denying the usage of spyware for unauthorized surveillance. Several countries like Rwanda, Morocco, India, and Hungary have denied using Pegasus to hack into the phones of anyone on the list. Whereas most of the states like Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, and Dubai did not yet respond to the allegations made.

India, for one, has no data protection laws and has an opaque, haphazard, and arbitrary mechanism for approval of surveillance. It hasn’t vehemently denied the use of Pegasus in unequivocal terms either. NSO, on the other hand, claims to offer its technologies only to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of “vetted governments” for “preventing criminal and terror acts”. Hence, either the government is just not admitting to it or some other government is using it to invade the earmarked citizens because the spyware cannot be accessed by private individuals or firms for it requires approval of the Israeli government before its export.

Particularly flagrant is the fact that if it’s our government then the taxpayers' money is being used to spy on citizens for what is clearly, political vendetta and if it is some other government then it is a massive threat to national security, something that Pegasus is supposed to protect us against. That said, it would be prudent to go by the conventional legal wisdom of presumption of innocence for want of substantial evidence against the establishments being named.

The way out of systemic eavesdropping of the ultimate losers- the innocuous citizens

Picture Credits: Ancient Origins

Pegasus was an immortal winged horse in Greek mythology; and one of Poseidon and Medusa's two children. Bellerophon, the legendary warrior and monster killer, was the owner of Pegasus. He attempted to climb Mount Olympus. Infuriated by Bellerophon's hubris, Zeus dispatched a gadfly, which stung Pegasus so badly that the winged horse hurled his rider to his death.

Bellerophon, here being the metaphor for the offender of this atrocious spyware offensive. Hacking is unethical and nothing can justify the deployment of spyware on individual citizens. The perpetrator of this criminal act must be held accountable. We need laws to reign in Spywares and force transparency.

NSO is in bad odor worldwide, it’s already facing multiple lawsuits in the USA and the company is on the verge of bankruptcy. Pegasus is classified as a weapon system, it qualifies to be one. Israeli government treats it to be one, subject to export controls. It is put under the "most sensitive" category of weapons in the Wassenaar Agreement to which India is a party. Anything under this is subject to many controls and regulations including what's known as EUMA (End-Use Monitoring Agreement) which means the country that selling it to the other country has the right and the responsibility to monitor its use.

The two fundamental challenges with surveillance today are that of attribution, without which we cannot have accountability and the other being jurisdiction, and in the global scenario where the attacks can come from anywhere and everywhere in the world, both become extremely difficult to perform.

Surveillance is not about who has done wrong and who has done right. It is essentially about exerting control, which is intrinsically undemocratic and unlawful, to say the least. It is a brazen violation of our fundamental human right to privacy, liberty, speech, and expression as it engenders a chilling effect on the citizenry, which is antithetical to the very idea of providing security and safety to individuals in a sovereign state. If nothing bothers us, this should and it must drive us into seeking accountability from the powers that be!


[1] Benjamin Franklin, Memoirs of the life & writings of Benjamin Franklin

About the Author

Chandrika Singh is an undergraduate student of Law. She is an evangelist for social justice, equity, and environmental welfare. She is fundamentally captivated by Indian politics, administration, and gender studies.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ytharth.

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