Pegasus snoopgate: The Orwellian apocalypse

Pegasus snoopgate: The Orwellian apocalypse

The drive to tag, monitor and criminalise opponents and dissenters might well boomerang on the people who set it in motion

Congress workers wearing face masks of PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, hold binoculars during their protest against the central government over an alleged surveillance operation using the Pegasus spyware, in Bengaluru. Credit: PTI Photo

Upon discovery of a leaked database of 50,000 numbers worldwide, which may have been targeted for surveillance by clients of the Israeli NSO Group, maker of the Pegasus spyware, there has been a great hue and cry in India, partly because NSO Group has made it known that it sells its spyware only to “vetted governments” around the world to combat terrorism.

In the Indian context, the thought that some highly placed individuals were potential targets of government or military services— when the air is thick with toxic discourses of what constitutes anti-nationalism— is unnerving, because such remote surveillance through an individual’s smartphone, secretly unlocking its contents and transforming the phone into a listening and seeing device, thrives on State paranoia. Surveillance could bolster State security, but in its crudest form has enabled practices of colonial rule, perpetuated racist and gendered forms of identification and classification, regulated and policed migration, and contained dissent. Such surveillance— which means “watching from above”— implies a power relationship that seeks to control, regulate, or modulate behaviour.  

Way back in 1791, the social reformer and philosopher Jeremy Bentham introduced a new type of penitentiary design that he called the Panopticon, Greek for ‘all-seeing place’. Panopticism thrives on the belief that control over individuals is made possible through a system that “facilitates the continuous, automatic, disciplinary surveillance of persons determined to be in need of correction or normalisation”. The ideas behind Panopticism were derived from Bentham’s work by French philosopher Foucault in his influential work Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), which is a piece of architecture that allows a watchman to observe the inmates without the inmates knowing whether or not they are being watched.

The extent of State surveillance operations, exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013 through a trove of US National Security Agency (NSA) documents, was a shocker. It offered us a clue as to how the lines between internal and external security, between common crimes and crimes against the State have been progressively blurred and how intrusive surveillance activities have seriously dented the privacy and civil liberties of citizens. In the name of national security, intelligence and law enforcement organisations, now vested with ex-cathedra powers, can infiltrate and intercept citizens’ communications on a daily basis with impunity. The expansion of surveillance technology penetrating citizens’ everyday lives has grown to such an extent that today the use of the private sector as a primary surveillance facilitator or third party in national security intelligence collection and dissemination is considered the new normal. This is the significance of the Pegasus scandal.

Bothered by our “too much democracy”, we may be drawing upon China which, a generation after the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, thanks to its autocratic leaders, is using powerful new technologies to create the largest and most effective surveillance state the world has ever seen where, as the joke goes, citizens can scarcely scratch their private parts or buy an orange without the Party knowing, and posting a satirical comment online about President Xi's facial features can land one in jail. The 'Operating System for Dictators'— a crippling surveillance system promoted by Beijing— has buyers in Africa and Asia, Russia and the Middle East.

A look into the profile of people targeted for surveillance and also how many of those attempts were successful can give us a clue. Ashok Lavasa, for instance, was the only member of the three-man Election Commission to fault Prime Minister Narendra Modi for having violated the Model Code of Conduct while campaigning for the 2019 general election. The notable journalists in the Pegasus list such as Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Siddharth Varadarajan and Prem Shankar Jha are not people known to be too enamoured of the Modi government.

While snooping on Prashant Kishor, the ace poll strategist, who recently steered the Trinamool Congress to victory in the West Bengal elections and also helped the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu and the Congress in Punjab to strategise and fight polls, and on TMC MP and Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, might seem obvious, surveillance on Dr Gagandeep Kang, one of the top virologists of the country, or on Ashwini Vaishnaw, who recently replaced Ravi Shankar Prasad as the Information Technology minister, and who, in line with Home Minister Amit Shah, pointed to role of ‘disrupters’ and ‘obstructers’ in making the press reports public a day before the monsoon session of Parliament, might have been dictated by some other unfathomable exigencies.

The Pegasus episode demonstrates that a chain of surveillance system was trained on a set of people thought to be ‘inimical’ to a coterie of powerful people in the government, putatively on a hidden agenda. It bared the pathology of a surveillance state with the trappings of a democracy. In 2018 — around the time that Pegasus software seems to have been in play— the Narendra Modi government had empowered 10 central probe and snoop agencies under the Information Technology (IT) Act to conduct computer interception and analysis. The National Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) the government is building is said to be the largest centralised facial recognition technology surveillance system in the world. The State’s mad paranoia that governs its drive to tag, monitor and criminalise its opponents and dissenters has, in effect, unleashed an Orwellian regime that might well boomerang on the people who set this in motion.

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