Spy vs spy: The Pegasus case
The Supreme Court may have drawn the legal curtains on the Pegasus spyware controversy, but the public is no wiser at the end of it. The independent investigation ordered by the Court is so inconclusive that it seems like the country has lost an opportunity to get to the bottom of this murky and perilous affair. The possibility that over 50,000 phone numbers were targeted by an Israeli malware that was sold to intelligence agencies around the world was unearthed by a deep global investigative project. Some European countries indeed admitted to buying the software, which was used ostensibly for the purposes of fighting terrorism and crime.
In India, a list of phones allegedly infected by Pegasus included those of politicians, journalists and NGO activists – persons who cannot be remotely linked to terrorism or any other kind of anti-national activity. The Modi government has refused to come clean about buying Pegasus or to what purposes, if any, it was put to. The Supreme Court-ordered investigation by a committee led by Justice RV Raveendran, failed to find conclusive proof of Pegasus infection in the phones submitted to it. While it established that five of the phones contained malware, it could not pinpoint its origin or nature.
More worryingly, the committee made it clear that the Centre failed to cooperate with the investigation. This is hardly surprising but inexcusable given the nature of allegations about who Pegasus was deployed against and considering the Supreme Court’s own observation that the national security bogey should not be used to hide the facts. Even so, the Court did its bit to help, inadvertently or otherwise, to paper over what may have happened. It chose to keep the report of the committee out of the public domain, a decision that undermines its very credibility. The Court should have allowed the report to be examined by other experts to validate its scientific accuracy rather than keeping it sealed.
In any modern nation, plagued by organised crime and terrorism, surveillance is both necessary and unavoidable. But it is imperative to limit the purposes to which such surveillance is put to. The temptation of those in power to use modern invasive technology for narrow political ends needs to be understood for what it is – a form of State excess. Many years ago, the Supreme Court put in guidelines for tapping phones, a move to protect the privacy of individuals.
Since then, the world has changed, mobile phones have become ubiquitous and new forms of spyware are capable of infecting electronic devices with a startling ease. Pegasus was a test case of sorts. Unfortunately, the result is something of a damp squib – one that fails to throw any light at all about what may have happened and, worse, one that runs the risk of emboldening those in power to rely on unusual methods to snoop on the populace.