An investigation conducted by the 16 media houses across the globe, led by the Washington Post revealed the unlawful digital surveillance employed by the Governments to spy on its journalists, judges, opposition party leaders and activists.
Named after the software used by the government for surveillance, “The Pegasus Project” disclosed the intricate details of one of the biggest attacks on global democracy.
What is Pegasus?
Pegasus is a spyware that can be used to hack into the devices of an individual and gather the information and send it to another entity. Developed by the Israeli firm NSO Group, the software can be installed on any mobile phone. Pegasus was initially an effective tool to combat terror and crime.
Pegasus software can be infiltrated into the target device through the shortcomings of commonly used apps or via malicious links sent as messages. Advanced technology has also enabled ‘zero click’ attacks. The aftermath of a successful attack follows the transfer of all data from the target to the attacker.
One license of Pegasus costs 7-8 million dollars and can be used on 50 phones. Since it is not mass surveillance the spyware has separate individuals appointed to manually go through the data. The software provides complete access to keystrokes, messages, control of the camera and microphone.
Threat to democracy
The problem arose when the software was used by the governments for surveillance of activists, journalists and eminent members of the society for their political purpose and gains. The Independent forensic report disclosed by the project revealed names of 40 Indian journalists under the scanner. It included journalists from prominent media houses such as Hindustan Times, the Hindu, Indian Express, Network18 the Wire.
The pegasus software can only be used by the clients of NSO and the NSO firm only has governments as its clients. The suspicions that the Indian government is behind the surveillance, further strengthened by the list of the journalists attacked, who have always been critical of the regime.
Further reports revealed the possibilities of the leader of the opposition Rahul Gandhi’s name in the list of phones being surveilled. The other prominent names include election strategist Prashant Kishore, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa, BJP ministers Ashwini Vaishnav and Prahlad Patel. The opposition leaders and other politicians condemning the state surveillance demand a Joint Parliament Committee to probe into the matter. The time frame ranges from 2017-19 that might indicate the surveillance of the many activists involved in the anti-CAA protests.
Meanwhile, the centre denied its role in the ‘snoopgate’ issue and pointed out the research by the consortium of media houses to be poorly conducted without due diligence. The centre also denied its role in pegasus when the WhatsApp hack story broke out in 2019.
Possible use to topple the governments
The Congress alleged the Israeli spyware could also be used to topple the government besides surveilling individuals. This was backed by referring to the defection in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh elections. Senior Karnataka politician and then Chief Minister H.D.Kumaraswamy and his aides would have been potential targets in 2019, the same year when the Congress-JDS government was pulled down and the BJP came into power.
Rumours on the internet pulled in former CJI Ranjan Gogoi who gave favourable decisions towards the centre and was rewarded with a Rajya Sabha seat, to be one of the victims of pegasus.