A report on Sunday, 18 July, revealed that Israel-made spyware Pegasus had purportedly been used to spy on at least 300 Indian phone numbers, including those of over 40 senior journalists, Opposition leaders, government officials, and rights activists.
As the story surfaces, the conversation around privacy will surface with it. But there is another aspect to it – that of national security.
The government will refuse to divulge information on who was spied on and who were the people sifting through these calls and messages of journalists claiming it’s a national security secret, but what’s clear is that the people surveilled were chosen for political considerations.
The story only covers journalists who were spied on, likely because most politicians, judges and officers would be unwilling to turn in their phones for a forensic audit that was necessary for the list of names to be corroborated, but when the capability was used against so many journalists, the possibility of use against others can’t be ruled out.
Instead of protecting national security, such illegal surveillance actually presents a security threat for India.
Power by Controlling the Information Environment
Over the last one year, we have been researching the dynamics of power in the modern world for a book titled The Art of Conjuring Alternate Realities, and what’s clear is that power is now attained by controlling the information environment and shaping the reality that people come to believe.
It is for strengthening this capability that the Indian government allegedly used Pegasus to spy on individuals, but since there aren’t any safeguards and processes for such operations, the material obtained can easily be repurposed for blackmailing and intimidation.
What’s worse is that there is no guarantee that such data will stay with just our government. We don’t even know if the people listening to the recordings were government employees or if the task was outsourced to a private entity.
It is entirely possible that such private calls and messages leak to hostile foreign governments or business interests, making it a major threat to India’s national security.
Information warfare is a reality in the modern world, but in India, it is mostly the government waging war against its own citizens.
Questions to be Answered Instead of Being Brushed Aside
Encryption protects our top leaders from blackmail as much as it protects activists, journalists and citizens from the government. If it is weakened for short term political gains to spy on journalists, it will have major consequences for India in the long run as more people fall into the surveillance net.
What processes were followed, what safeguards exist and which specific individuals actually did the surveillance are important questions that must be answered instead of being brushed aside in the name of national security.
(Shivam Shankar Singh is the author of 'The Art of Conjuring Alternate Realities: How Information Warfare Shapes Your World' (HarperCollins) and 'How to Win an Indian Election' (Penguin). He works as a data analyst on political campaigns. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)