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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Weaponization of tech: A persistent threat facing all
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Weaponization of tech: A persistent threat facing all

Governments have even been toppled in the past over illegal phone tapping and surveillance

Apple’s explanation over its “state-sponsored attackers” notification, a puzzle in itself, is viral now. (Reuters)Premium
Apple’s explanation over its “state-sponsored attackers” notification, a puzzle in itself, is viral now. (Reuters)

The spectre of alleged spying on Opposition leaders and journalists is back to haunt. But what is the truth behind such cases? Until now, it is hidden behind a veil of half-truths.

In the early hours of 31 October, some key figures in the Opposition, including MPs Mahua Moitra, Shashi Tharoor and Asaduddin Owaisi, received a message from Apple. It read: “State-sponsored attackers may be targeting your iPhone." Besides them, two editors also received the message. Siddharth Varadarajan, one of them, had caused a stir in Indian politics in July 2021 when he revealed the deployment of Pegasus spyware on mobile phones and other devices.

His report said the phones of some politicians of note (Rahul Gandhi among them), judges, journalists and businessmen were being monitored on an extensive level for the first time. After causing a political flutter, the case reached the Supreme Court, which in October 2021 appointed a technical committee to probe the incident. The committee presented its report to the Supreme Court the following year. The apex court then ruled that the findings should not be made public.

Should it be assumed that such a high-profile case was politically motivated? It would be inappropriate to jump to any conclusion. The use of spyware against the country’s officials, businesses and journalists for personal or political gain is undoubtedly unethical and objectionable, but such software cannot be outright banned. Every country in the world has used them to keep terrorists, their backers and their strategists in the country and abroad under watch.

One such case recently made headlines when President Draupadi Murmu fired an Army major posted to the Strategic Force Command. The major was suspected of keeping sensitive information on his phone and using it against the country. A dozen other key military personnel, who were members of the WhatsApp group called Patiala Peg, of which the major was a member, are also under investigation. Without real-time electronic surveillance, such a critical expose would have been impossible. Pegasus and other such software were created for this purpose.

Let us return to the recent iPhone notification case. Apple’s explanation over its “state-sponsored attackers" notification, a puzzle in itself, is viral now. Meanwhile Union minister for railways, communications, electronics and information technology Ashwini Vaishnaw has stated that Apple has delivered the same alert to customers in 150 countries. The question is: Did the Opposition take advantage of the situation and play the victim card?

Such controversies have occurred in the past, too. Governments have even been toppled in the past over illegal phone tapping and surveillance. We can recall two very important cases.

One was the Nira Radia tape scandal. The phone conversations of several officials, journalists, actresses, businessmen and celebrities’ were leaked as part of that exposé. It brought to light the rot in the worlds of politics, business, journalism and glamour. But in the end, nothing much came out of the exposé and things have moved forward as usual.

Another such exposé was of the South Africa cricket match fixing in 2000. It stunned the entire world then. The betting network spread all the way from South Africa to India and cast a shadow over the careers of South African captain Hansie Cronje and Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin.

The exposé wrecked the careers of many of their colleagues, too. Cronje confessed to wrongdoing before a judicial commission, but Azharuddin was acquitted. Later, he was elected to the Lok Sabha. The link between crime, investigation and final conviction is not a requisite in our country.

Did betting stop after the match-fixing scandal? No. A few years later, cricketers S. Sreesanth and Ajit Chandila, and numerous other budding cricketers were banned for match-fixing. Some others were penalized, but did the drama end there? Cricket was considered a religion in this country, but the market transformed it into some kind of tamasha. Is privacy now following a similar path? Nobody wants their personal information to be made public, but technology has made access to such information easy, introducing new threats. Many previous controversies give testament to the misuse of technology, but the route to liberation from it is nowhere in sight.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. Views are personal.

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Published: 05 Nov 2023, 10:37 PM IST
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