Here in India, the summer of dying is quickly morphing into what looks very much like a summer of spying.
The second wave of coronavirus has retreated, after leaving an estimated 4 million Indians dead. The official government figure for the number of deaths is a tenth of that – 400,000. In Narendra Modi’s dystopia, even as the smoke dwindled in crematoriums and the earth settled in graveyards, gigantic hoardings appeared on our streets saying “Thank you Modiji”. (An expression of the people’s gratitude-in-advance for the “free vaccine” that remains largely unavailable, and which 95% of the population is yet to receive.) As far as Modi’s government is concerned, any attempt to tabulate the true death toll is a conspiracy against India – as if the millions more who died were simply actors who lay down spitefully in the shallow, mass graves that you saw in aerial photos, or floated themselves into rivers disguised as corpses, or cremated themselves on city sidewalks, motivated solely by the desire to sully India’s international reputation.
This same charge has now been levelled by the Indian government and its embedded media against the international consortium of investigative journalists from 17 news organisations who worked with Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International to break an extraordinary story about global surveillance on a massive scale. India appears in these reports, alongside a group of countries whose governments appear to have bought Pegasus spyware developed by NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm. NSO, for its part, has said that it sells its technology only to governments that have been vetted for their human rights record and undertake to use it only for purposes of national security – to track terrorists and criminals.
The other countries that seem to have passed NSO’s human rights test include Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Mexico. So who, exactly, has agreed upon the definition of “terrorists” and “criminals”? Is this simply up to NSO and its clients?
Other than the exorbitant cost of the spyware, which runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars per phone, the NSO charges an annual system maintenance fee of 17% of the total cost of the program. There has to be something treasonous about a foreign corporation servicing and maintaining a spy network that is monitoring a country’s private citizens on behalf of that country’s government.
The investigating team examined a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers. Analysis showed that more than 1,000 of these were selected by a client of NSO in India. Whether or not a number has been successfully hacked, or subject to an attempt at hacking, can only be determined if the phones are submitted for forensic examination. In India, several of those that have been examined have been found to have been infected with the Pegasus spyware. The leaked list includes the phone numbers of opposition party politicians, dissident journalists, activists, lawyers, intellectuals, businessman, a non-compliant official of India’s election commission, a non-compliant senior intelligence officer, cabinet ministers and their families, foreign diplomats and even the prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan.
Indian government spokespeople have denounced the list as fake. Close watchers of Indian politics would know that even a skilled and knowledgable fiction writer would not be able to construct such an apt, credible list of those whom the ruling party considers to be persons of interest or people inimical to its political project. It’s full of delightful nuance, full of stories within stories. Some unexpected names are on it. Many expected ones are not.
Pegasus, we are told, can be installed in a targeted phone with just a missed call. Imagine that. A payload of invisible spyware delivered on the missile of a missed call. An ICBM like no other. One that is capable of dismantling democracies and atomising societies without the bother of red tape – no warrants, no weapons agreements, no oversight committees, nor any kind of regulation whatsoever. Technology is value-neutral of course. It isn’t anybody’s fault.
The friendly collaboration between NSO and India appears to have begun in Israel in 2017, during what the Indian media called the Modi-Netanyahu “bromance” – the time they rolled up their trousers and paddled together on Dor beach. They left more than just their own footprints in the sand. It was around then that phone numbers in India began to appear on the list.
That same year the budget for India’s National Security Council increased ten-fold. Most of the increased amount was allocated to cybersecurity. In August 2019, soon after Modi won his second term as prime minister, India’s draconian anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), under which thousands have been imprisoned without bail, was expanded to include individuals, not just organisations. Organisations, after all, don’t have smartphones – an important detail, even if only theoretical. But certainly one that expands the mandate. And the market.
During the debate on the amendment in parliament, the home minister, Amit Shah, said: “Sir, guns do not give rise to terrorism, the root of terrorism is the propaganda that is done to spread it … And if all such individuals are designated terrorists, I don’t think any member of parliament should have any objection.”
The Pegasus scandal has now created an uproar in the monsoon session of parliament. The opposition has demanded that the home minister step down. Modi’s ruling party, comfortable in its brute majority, fielded Ashwini Vaishnaw – newly sworn in as the minister for railways, for communications and for information technology – to defend the government in parliament. Humiliatingly for him, his number was on the leaked list as well.
If you set aside the bluster and obfuscating bureaucratese of the government’s many statements, you will find no outright denial of the purchase and use of Pegasus. NSO hasn’t denied the sale either. The government of Israel has opened an inquiry into the allegations of abuse of the spyware, as has the French government. In India, the money trail will, sooner or later, lead us to the smoking gun. But where will the smoking gun lead us?
Consider this: there are 16 activists, lawyers, trade unionists, professors and intellectuals, many of them Dalit, who have been jailed for years in what is known as the Bhima-Koregaon (BK) case. They are accused, outlandishly, of conspiring to incite violence that took place between Dalits and privileged caste groups on 1 January 2018, when tens of thousands of Dalits gathered to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima-Koregaon (in which Dalit soldiers fought with the British to defeat the Peshwas, a tyrannical Brahmin regime). The phone numbers of eight out of the 16 BK accused, and the numbers of some of their close family members, have appeared on the leaked list. Whether all or any of them were the subject of an attempted or actual hack cannot be ascertained because their phones are in police custody and not available for forensic examination.
Over the years some of us have become scholars of the sinister lengths to which Modi’s government will go to entrap those it considers enemies – and it’s more than simply surveillance. The Washington Post recently published the findings of a report by Arsenal Consulting, a digital forensics firm in Massachusetts, that examined electronic copies of the computers belonging to two of the BK accused, Rona Wilson and Surendra Gadling. Investigators found that both their computers had been infiltrated by an unidentified hacker, and incriminating documents had been placed in hidden folders on their hard drives. Among them, for some added frisson, was a ludicrous letter outlining a corny plot to kill Modi.
The grave implications of the Arsenal report have not stirred India’s judiciary or its mainstream press to act in the cause of justice. Quite the contrary. While they worked hard to cover it up and contain the possible fallout of the report, one of the BK accused, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest, Father Stan Swamy, a man who had spent decades of his life in the state of Jharkhand working among forest-dwelling tribespeople fighting against corporate takeover of their homelands, died an excruciating death after being infected with coronavirus in prison. At the time of his arrest he had Parkinson’s disease as well as cancer.
So, what are we to make of Pegasus? To cynically dismiss it as a new technological iteration of an age-old game in which rulers have always spied on the ruled would be a serious mistake. This is no ordinary spying. Our mobile phones are our most intimate selves. They have become an extension of our brains and bodies. Illegal surveillance through mobile phones isn’t new in India. Every Kashmiri knows that. Most Indian activists do, too. However, for us to cede to governments and corporations the legal right to invade and take over our phones is to voluntarily submit ourselves to being violated.
The revelations of the Pegasus project show that the potential threat of this spyware is more invasive than any previous form of spying or surveillance. More invasive even than the algorithms of Google, Amazon and Facebook, inside whose warp and weft millions live their lives and play out their desires. It’s more than having a spy in your pocket. It’s like having the love of your life – or worse, having your own brain, including its inaccessible recesses – informing on you.
Spyware such as Pegasus puts not just the user of each infected phone but the entire social circle of their friends, families and colleagues at political, social and economic risk.
The person who has probably thought longer and deeper about mass surveillance than anybody else in the world is the dissident and former US National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden. In a recent interview with the Guardian, he warned: “If you don’t do anything to stop the sale of this technology, it’s not just going to be 50,000 targets. It’s going to be 50 million targets, and it’s going to happen much more quickly than any of us expect.” We should pay attention to him. He’s been on the inside track and has been watching it coming.
I met Snowden in Moscow almost seven years ago, in December 2014. It was about a year and a half since he had turned whistleblower, disgusted by his government’s indiscriminate mass surveillance of its own citizens. He had made his great escape in May 2013, and was slowly getting used to life as a fugitive. Daniel Ellsberg (of the Pentagon Papers), John Cusack (of John Cusack) and I travelled to Moscow to meet him. For three days, we holed up in a hotel room with the icy Russian winter pressing against the windowpanes, speaking of surveillance and spying. How far would it go? Where would it take us? Who would we become?
When news of the Pegasus project broke, I went back and looked at the transcript of our recorded conversation. It ran into a few hundred pages. It made my hair stand on end. Snowden, barely into his thirties then, was grimly prophetic: “The technology cannot be rolled back, technology is not going anywhere … it is going to be cheaper, it is going to be more effective, it is going to be more available. If we do nothing, we sort of sleepwalk into a total surveillance state where we have both a super state that has unlimited capacity to apply force with an unlimited ability to know and [therefore be able to] target [that] force – and that’s a very dangerous combination … This is the direction of the future.”
In other words, we are headed towards being governed by states that know everything there is to know about people, and about which people know less and less. That asymmetry can only lead in one direction. Malignancy. And the end of democracy.
Snowden is right. The technology cannot be rolled back. But it needn’t be allowed to function as an unregulated, legitimate industry, reeling in profits, blossoming and flowering on the pulsing transcontinental highways of the free market. It needs to be legislated against. Driven underground. The technology may exist, the industry needn’t.
So, where does that leave us? Back in the world of good, old-fashioned politics, I’d say. Only political action can halt or mitigate this threat. Because that technology, when it is used, if not legally then illegally, will always exist within the complicated matrix that describes our times: nationalism, capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, racism, casteism, sexism. This will remain our battlefield – regardless of how technology develops.
We will have to migrate back to a world in which we are not controlled and dominated by our intimate enemy – our mobile phones. We have to try to rebuild our lives, struggles and social movements outside the asphyxiating realm of digital surveillance. We must dislodge the regimes that are deploying it against us. We must do everything we can to prise open their grip on the levers of power, everything we can to mend all that they have broken, and take back all they have stolen.