This story is not about India, any longer, but about all those countries where democracy has been subverted by a military grade spyware supplied to friendly governments by Israel when it was ruled by Benjamin Netanyahu. This malware, ostensibly sold to fight terrorism, snooped and hacked into the mobile phones of civil society activists, journalists and political opponents.
It is shocking that these countries did not just confine their surveillance ambitions to individuals within their borders, but also targeted politicians and heads of states of foreign countries like the presidents of France, South Africa and Pakistan: Emmanuelle Macron, Cyril Ramaphosa and Imran Khan. Indeed, Macron has taken it up at the highest level in Paris, as well as with the Israeli government.
The big question that has got obfuscated in the deluge of words after the Amnesty International and Paris-based NGO, Forbidden Stories, released a data dump of 50,000 hacked phone numbers from 10 odd countries is transparent – was the earlier Israeli government under Netanyahu complicit in this gargantuan surveillance scandal?
And what was Israel offering its friends like India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
Fixing elections, or, worse?
The data dump of hacking that Forbidden Stories released last month is largely of the year 2019 when India was heading for parliamentary elections. The hacked phones included that of an Election Commissioner and the leader of the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, who was spearheading a campaign against Modi for engaging in gigantic corruption while purchasing the expensive Rafale fighter jets from France. Ironically, Macron’s phone was also hacked through Pegasus — an act blamed on the Moroccans till now, but the truth is that what the French leader was discussing on various issues was being listened to by the NSO or the Israelis.
Indeed, the big question that the Defense Minister of Israel, Benny Gantz, who has been mandated to mollify the French, has to answer is simple: Do they know more than what they claim to know?
These questions arise due to the mixed claims made by the Israeli maker of the spyware, Pegasus, whereby the company states that it has built safeguards, including a scrutiny by Israel’s ministry of defense, to prevent the spyware’s misuse. The detailed statement on the company’s protection of human rights that was issued earlier in June, 2021, is a painfully laborious exercise. It is only trying to show how good the company is in preventing human rights abuse, and how they have lost millions of dollars turning down clients who had a egregious human rights record!
Wonder who these clients truly were!
After all, Pegasus has rightly been accused of penetrating the phones of some of those editors and journalists — Jamal Khashoggi and Cicilio Peneda Birto — who came to grief. Pegasus was found embedded in Khashoggi’s partner’s phone also. The slain Mexican journalist’s number was also found in the data base, though not on his phone.
Interestingly, and ironically, the period that has come under the arc of probe about Pegasus coincides with the coming of power of Narendra Modi. In 2014, Francisco Partners, owned and headed by an Indian, Depanjan Deb, bought NSO. What is not known is whether the Indian government had anything to do with Francisco Partners. It was re-sold in 2019 to a London-based private company, Novalpina, which is now facing liquidation. Novalpina also had employees who allegedly are close to the Indian leadership. The big question remains who drove these investments into a company that is making military grade spyware for the Israeli government. Israel’s newspaper, Haaretz claims that India got Pegasus after PM Narendra Modi visited Tel Aviv and met Bibi Netanyahu, PM of Israel. This was in 2017. There is no clarity about what happened thereafter, but reports of extensive snooping by Pegasus of whatsapp messenger platform was reported during the 2019 parliament elections was reported in many media expose. There are also reports of Netanyahu exulting in a cabinet meeting when he learnt that his “friend” has won in Indian elections. The implications of this political relationship was never probed or even discussed till the Pegasus issue was exposed recently.
This spyware, which has evolved to become zero-click — Pegasus no longer needs a person to click on an app to get into the phone — is reputed to leave no trace of its infiltration. However, the Amnesty International, that has been demanding banning of such surveillance software, has a lab that is able to establish traces of its presence in the iphone. Interestingly, most of the hacking has taken place in iphones, which prides itself for being the ‘safest’ phone!
Despite innumerable warnings by Facebook and its other offerings like ‘Messenger’ and Whatsapp, the phone was vulnerable; Apple, strangely, never tried to prevent the malware from getting in the phones. This was when they knew too well that it was well-known that Pegasus was not just a ‘listening software’, but, after getting into the device, it harvested emails, activated the microphone and camera, accessed the phonebook and could really strip all the elements of secrecy of the phone.
This kind of hacking is banned under Indian law and that of other countries, but the Modi government in Delhi, unlike in France, has kept silent. The statements of the communication minister, the newly appointed Ashwin Vaishnav – ironically, his phone had also been hacked in 2018 — did not deny that the government had not retained the software.
The government is resisting any inquiry into the snooping affair. The opposition parties have brought the Parliament to a standstill. The BJP government in Delhi is hoping that its obduracy will see the wilting of the resistance of the opposition.
The pugnacious chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, who recently defeated the BJP at the hustings, is challenging this view. Her government has set up a commission of inquiry under two retired judges to look into the hacking by Pegasus malware. She is also using this issue of surveillance to forge unity amongst disparate opposition parties. This is a challenge to the government of Modi, which is pushing back in the only way only they can — by brazening it out.
Meanwhile, media and civil society activists have taken the matter to the Supreme Court demanding an inquiry to ascertain who ordered the use of the malware on those who were subjected to this intrusive watch. In 2018, the government of India had arrested some lawyers and academics on the charge of planning to assassinate Modi. One of the accused was a seriously ailing 84-year-old Jesuit priest, Stan Swamy, who was put away under the draconian anti-terror law in which the arrestee cannot be released till the final acquittal. Those arrested under this law are not even given bail. Stan Swamy suffered terribly and died while in custody, without getting bail, or proper medical treatment. His death has shocked the national and international opinion. Civil society activists call his death “an institutional murder”.
Names of many of those implicated have also been found in the Pegasus dump. It has been decisively discovered by the lawyers of the incarcerated that files were planted in their laptops through the malware. The government prosecutors have refused to take cognizance of these serious allegations about files being planted, but if the Pegasus issue is allowed to be impartially inquired into, then much of the dangerous games the government agencies play with peaceful dissenters, civil society activists, intellectuals, students, and journalists, would come out in the open.
Surely, what would also thereby become known is whether the 2019 parliamentary elections were also fixed by the malware! And that truly will be big, breaking news.