- Weaknesses in the intrusive surveillance framework are causing serious damage to India’s democratic ideals. There are several documented cases of advanced spyware being used against human rights defenders in India.
- More than a dozen opposition leaders and journalists received an email notification from tech giant Apple informing them that their digital devices had been targeted by “state-protected attackers.” In this article, dated July 22, 2022, Anushka Jain and Krishnesh Bapat analyze the implications of Project Pegasus’ discoveries. It has been a year since Project Pegasus’ findings revealed a threat to Indian democracy. A leading digital news platform reported that the mobile phones of at least 300 Indians were hacked using Pegasus, the spyware of the Israel-based NSO Group; The ten cases were confirmed through forensic analysis conducted by Amnesty International’s Security Laboratory. The victims, important members of India’s constitutional order, included ministers, opposition leaders, journalists, judges and human rights defenders.
India has known about Pegasus since October 30, 2019, when WhatsApp confirmed that the spyware was being used to exploit vulnerabilities in its platform to target activists, academics, journalists and lawyers in India. Since then, NSO has been improving its technology, and Pegasus can now infect devices without any user action. Given the seriousness of the threat posed by these revelations and the credibility of the evidence supporting them, it is important to examine how each branch of the Indian state has responded, or failed to respond, to how to protect citizens’ privacy.
Official indifference and obfuscation
It is expected that law enforcement will provide the first response and government agencies will respond with action based on the severity of the disclosure. But on July 19, 2021, Electronics and IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnau, referring to “reports dated July 18, 2021,” refused to directly address Project Pegasus’ complaints; They claim that the current legal framework prevents unauthorized surveillance.
On November 28, 2019, former Electronics and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had a similar reaction to allegations of use of Pegasus. A New York Times report dated January 31, 2022 contradicted both statements and stated that “India purchased Pegasus in 2017 as part of a $2 billion defense package.” The indifference of ministers is also reflected in professional agencies.
In response to the Project Pegasus revelations, CERT-IN, the nodal agency for India’s Computer Emergency Response Team, which deals with cybersecurity threats, has remained silent. However, WhatsApp’s 2019 statement forced CERT-In to issue notices to NSO and WhatsApp on November 26, 2019. But the agency did not provide any updates on what happened.
- Judicial response
- When it became clear that there was no response from the executive and legislative authorities, the victims resorted to the judiciary to demand compensation. So, on August 5, 2021, the victims went to the Supreme Court of India, where they proved that forensic analysis showed that their phones were infected with the virus.
- We do not accept any responsibility
- Perhaps commentators were quick to realize that the Pegasus flight represented India’s “Watergate moment.” After the Watergate scandal, the institutional response in the United States held President Richard Nixon and others accountable, with all branches of the state moving to rein in the abuse of power. But in India, the narrative certainly persists as a formal stone wall.
There is a need to review surveillance laws to prevent indiscriminate surveillance of people and organizations by the state and the private sector. The Information Technology Act 2000 and the Indian Telegraph Act 1885 give the government powers of surveillance, concentrating powers of surveillance in the hands of the executive and not providing for independent judicial or parliamentary oversight. These laws date back to a time before spyware such as Pegasus was developed, and are therefore inappropriate for the modern surveillance industry.
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