4 min read.Updated: 03 Nov 2019, 07:10 PM ISTManu Joseph
Governments do not deny that they snoop on their own people. They, in fact, claim that they do it legally
As the identities of Indian activists who may have been spied upon by a shadowy agency slowly emerge, the matter has become the human rights industry’s equivalent of the Bachchan Diwali party: If you are on the list, your friends will think you have arrived big time, but then it is not clear why some A-listers are not on the list.
Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, has sued an Israeli company, called NSO Group, for selling a highly sophisticated spyware system, called Pegasus, to government agencies across the world that have, in turn, used it to breach phones of over a thousand people, including Indians. The malware lured the target to click on a link, which is typical of such attempts to break in, but it was also so advanced that it could gain access by sending a WhatsApp call even if it was not answered. The spyware could then collect all data from the device, including passwords, and control camera and audio settings.
All this is what we know, which means it is a fraction of what has transpired.
Some Indian activists have claimed that they were among the targets of Pegasus. At the time of filing this column, the Indian media have identified 17 targets and described them as “human rights activists, scholars and journalists", which are ambiguous terms today, but descriptive of a type of people who are politicians but do not contest elections. Almost all of them fight the Indian government on behalf of the unfortunate.
The NSO Group has defended its spyware by saying that it has sold Pegasus only to “legitimate" government agencies. This statement appears to have implicated the Indian government in some way. Which other government, humanitarians ask, would be so interested in Indian activists?
As though in anticipation of this very moment, India has in place a minister who oversees law, justice, communications, electronics and information technology—Ravi Shankar Prasad, who has denied the accusation of government-grade spying with the observation: “…India is committed to protecting privacy of all Indian citizens."
Governments usually do not deny that they snoop on their own people. They, in fact, claim that they do it legally. But then, many things that the government does are legal precisely because it’s the government that’s doing it, unless some people have been clumsy with the paperwork. The most famous incorrect statement in history has to be Hegel’s: “The State is the actuality of the ethical idea." The State is, in fact, actually the fabricator of the ethical idea.
Every government claims that it spies on its own people for the ultimate moral reason: to protect them. Even Obama defended large-scale and sophisticated snooping on Americans when he was US president. He also said his people would have been better off if they had not come to know about the spying.
Activists ask if the Indian government is in a state of war against its citizens. It’s meant to be a rhetorical question, a familiar rebuke. But it has an answer, and that is “yes". All governments are at war with their people. This holds even in nations where they get to vote.
The State needs the money of its people, their surrender to laws and their acceptance of a limited set of freedoms, widely overrated as “liberty". And, the State needs to know, in the most efficient ways possible, what is going on. Also, the State is in a perpetual war against disenchanted groups that do not have the funds to contest elections, so conduct a soft war through humanitarianism, environmentalism, and other ambushes that masquerade as journalism. The typical government is filled with successful people, who need to know what their vanquished rivals were plotting.
As technology advances, governments become increasingly sophisticated snoopers. They officially snoop at many levels.
Over a decade ago, when a chain of mysterious sources handed over a set of recordings of phone conversations of a woman called Niira Radia to the media, no one knew which wing of the government had made the recordings. Only after some of the recordings were made public did we know that they were conducted by the finance ministry after an “anonymous" letter (which the ministry, mysteriously, took very seriously) drew its attention to Radia.
It is possible that even at the level of domestic crimes, the police do not solve tough cases only by going to shamans, as some of them are known to do. A more efficient way is the illegal tapping of phones to collect information that can never be presented as evidence in court, but points to the truth, which the investigators then reverse-engineer to arrive at evidence.
The NSO Group, too, claims that it is essentially in a moral business, that it helps governments disarm terrorists and drug cartels. In fact, NSO has a human rights policy, which is chiefly a nonsensical statement that includes words like “guiding principles" and how it does not sell to governments with a bad human rights record (yet it sold Pegasus to Saudi Arabia). It is inevitable that journalists will have two interesting questions for the organization: “Did you sell your tech to India" and “If so, when?"
The activists whose phones the spyware breached also seem to be the type of people who fear Aadhaar, which is in comparison an innocuous assembly of already surrendered information. I cannot help thinking that the activists may have berated Aadhaar on their phones to their like-minded friends, and how much the snoop who heard this would have laughed.
Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’