Home >Opinion >Views >A case of manufactured outrage that won’t get far

This piece is part of a Mint Debate on Pegasus snooping row. Go here for a counter view.

The disproportionate ruckus over the alleged use of Israeli spyware Pegasus against Indian (and other) subjects has all the markings of manufactured outrage. The names revealed are in the range of 150-200 Indians in an adult population of 950 million (at the time of writing). The outrage has rapidly deteriorated into a farce, with one state chief minister setting up her own inquiry commission headed by a former Supreme Court judge when cases of widespread post-election violence, murder and alleged rape in her state did not evoke any such concern.

This is not to belittle the importance of ensuring personal privacy and restricting snooping to legally-authorized cases only. That needs to be ensured—if needed, by a law that is stronger than the one we now have, under which civil servants can authorize wire-taps. However, the burden of my song is that the outrage is largely misplaced and out of proportion to the level of actual invasion of privacy that may—or may not—have happened through the use of Pegasus by various countries and/or private players, assuming they got hold of it. This spyware works by infiltrating mobile phones and using their location and personal data even while surreptitiously controlling microphones or cameras without the user knowing.

The simple point to make is that if Pegasus did not exist, it would have had to be invented in an age in which encrypted information is a central part of mobile and social media communications. From Kashmir to Maoist-ridden regions, from Shaheen Bagh to farmer protests, governments and security forces are often caught unawares by encrypted communication, which lets groups coordinate efforts to damage property, threaten the lives of ordinary citizens and break the law in other ways.

The reality that ‘liberals’ seem unwilling to accept is that in this age of technological disruption, tools that can cause citizens much suffering are easy for non-state actors to access, while state actors, who are supposed to stay within the four corners of the law, are unable to prevent such mayhem. In the US, we saw this happen during the #BlackLivesMatter protests and the assault on Capitol Hill this January. Even an advanced country’s police force could not prevent breakdowns of public order.

Unlike trouble-makers, the armed forces have only blunt instruments with them. In Jammu and Kashmir, we enforced a prolonged ban on 3G and 4G internet services to contain violence that was anticipated after Article 370 was made defunct; during the farmer protests in Delhi, the police had no way of stopping a violent mob from attacking law enforcers or hoisting flags at the Red Fort. In communally-sensitive moments, when rumours can cause riots, the only tool available is the blunt one of shutting down all mobile communication.

It is odd of arm-chair liberals to claim on the one hand that shutting down the internet is some kind of assault on human rights, while at the same time claiming that the usage of spyware like Pegasus is also an unwarranted assault on privacy. When the public interest matters most, privacy cannot be an argument against the use of spyware that is legitimately deployed against potential law-breakers. Pegasus-like software plays a key role in limiting state action to potential law-breakers, rather than affecting an area’s entire population.

We cannot have it both ways. We can’t make accusations of intelligence failure when a Pulwama or 26/11 attack happens, and then oppose the government’s ability to generate more intelligence by infiltrating the devices of potential trouble-makers. Spyware improves state capacity in matters of law and order.

There are also two other points worth making. One, in the age of the mobile internet, internet-of-things, social media and Big Tech equipped with data on practically every user, our privacy is dependent on these companies playing fair with our personal information. But consumers seem blithely ignorant of the risks involved in parting with so much data to private companies, even as they make a big show of resistance to a government obtaining the same data through legal means. It is a fair bet that each of the names reported to be on the Pegasus victim list could easily have been targeted through the use of artificial intelligence tools on the personal data that they’ve given away.

One should recall the privacy lobby’s resistance to the introduction of Aadhaar, despite safeguards, even though this single initiative has ensured three beneficial outcomes. One, it has prevented the leakage of subsidies meant for the poor; two, it has created a database of citizens whose identities can be verified by law enforcement; three, it has improved the ease of doing business, thanks to know-your-customer norms (for financial transactions, mobile phone and internet connections, et al).

The real issue of privacy does not relate to spyware, but the sort of corruption that lets data be obtained by anyone for a price. The Radia Tapes are a case in point. Those wiretaps on Niira Radia were legally authorized, but the details of those conversations were leaked by private parties that clearly wanted to embarrass politicians, journalists and businessmen. It is this leaky system, where private information can be traded illegally, that is our real problem, not Pegasus.

There has been much outrage over spyware being used on journalists. But what the Radia wiretaps showed was that many journalists were compromised and in cahoots with politicians and businessmen. We need strong safeguards to prevent the misuse of spyware, but excessive outrage does not serve any purpose.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, Swarajya magazine

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