THE PEGASUS SPYWARE – MAKING SENSE OUT OF NOISE

Introduction

The Pegasus Spyware and its alleged attacks on high-profile people muddled with some serious allegations that the incumbent Government may have been using the spyware for something more than national security threats have made it the talk of the town. There is a lot of information out there right now, with contradicting facts and people are having a hard time ascertaining what is happening and what are its consequences. The article provides a coherent understanding about the Pegasus Spyware, and associated issues in the context of the Indian Government.


What is the Pegasus Spyware?

Spyware is any noxious programming intended to enter your PC gadget, accumulate your information, and forward it to an outsider without your assent.Pegasus, created by NSO Group, is maybe the most remarkable spyware in History. It is intended to penetrate phonesand transform them into reconnaissance gadgets.The Israeli organization, notwithstanding, markets it as an apparatus to follow potential national security threats for designated spying only. A solitary permit, which can be utilized to contaminate a few cell phones, can cost up to Rs. 70 lakh. As per a 2016 value list, NSO Group charged its clients $650,000 to invade 10 gadgets, in addition to an establishment expense of $500,000.

As per the documents submitted to a US Court, there are additional costs to it as well which requires a server room, UPS systems and 42U rack cabinets to name a few. Other things include specific temperature control and at least two Asynchronous Transfer Mode lines from two different Internet Service Providers. All this infrastructure also requires a cellular tower specific to providing -95 decibels at least.

What are the Allegations?

Eminent personalities like ex-judges and opposition leaders have alleged that the incumbent government employed the services of the NSO Group to snoop on political opponents to get an unfair advantage. The Amnesty list includes leaders like Rahul Gandhi of the INC and Abhishek Banerjee of the TMC. West Bengal Chief Minister has set up an inquiry commission to probe the Pegasus spyware and find its connection with the Central Government.


The Credibility of The List

While the majority of mainstream news outlets have only highlighted these names, the same list also contains the name of the Union Minister for Railways, IT and Communications Ashwini Vaishnaw and even his wife, Union Minister of State for Jal Shakti Prahlad Singh Patel and Sanjay Kachroo, who served under Union Minister Smriti Irani and many more. It seems strange if not outright absurd that the Government is spying on itself.

Further, the list also contains irrelevant or small-time journalists. Even if the Government wanted to spy on these individuals, they wouldn’t resort to using a state-of-the-art cyber-attack that costs a whopping Rs.70 lakhs for one phone. It might sound condescending but a sensationalist journalist would simply be not worth so much money and investment of resources.

Amnesty International has even issued an official clarification on their websitewhich calls the data on the list as only potential targets and not actual victims of Pegasus. One of the major media houses, The Washington Post, which is also a part of the Pegasus Project issued an official statement on the same where they said, “Although the purpose of the list could not be conclusively determined, it is a fascinating document.” The matter of fact being, all these clarifications and statements have made the expose of the decade nothing but sensationalist conjecture.

NSO’s Statement

NSO’s CEO Shalev Hulio has denounced the reports as false and threatened to sue the media organizations under defamation. Further, Hulio said "We'll be very happy if there is an investigation into the affair, because we'll be able to clear our name, we don't have and have never had any ties to the list that was published, and if it turns out that there was some client who exploited our system to track journalists or human rights workers, they'll be cut off immediately. We've proven that in the past, including with some of our biggest customers, and we stopped working with them,".

When asked about why is all this happening, he was quoted saying - "It looks like someone decided to come after us. The Israeli cyber sector is under attack, in general. There are so many cyber intelligence companies in the world, but everyone just focuses on the Israeli ones. Forming a consortium like this of journalists from all over the world and bringing Amnesty into it – it looks like there's a guiding hand behind it.I believe in the end, it will turn out to be Qatar or the BDS movement. The way I see it, it's no coincidence that the same week that people try to prevent Cellebrite's IPO, an expose about [cyber firm] Candiru is published, and now us. It can't be that this is all coincidental." NSO has reiterated that it is fully aligned with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and a comprehensive Transparency Report for the same has been released by the NSO Group.


Indian Context

In the past, Governments have very liberally tapped phones and justified doing so for various reasons. One of them was when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the Inaugurating India Corporate Week 2010, said that corporates were justified in their nervousness arising out of phone tapping. However, such phone tapping was necessary for the national interest, he said. He said "such powers are needed in the world that we live in". Moreover, Cambridge Analytica whistleblowerChristopher Wylie had testified in the UK Parliament that the Indian National Congress worked extensively with the data analytics firm. Even their poster was spotted in the CEO’s London office.

The point being serious violations of privacy have taken place yet there has been no action on the same. The Information Technology Act, 2000 was never drafted remembering a situation to empower the public authority to participate in reconnaissance through spyware, as a component of its