Those censuring the Narendra Modi government for allegedly snooping and spying on Indians are barking up the wrong tree. Successive governments in the past have employed various agencies, technologies and intermediaries to collect information, process them and act upon the sensitive ones in the larger interest of national security. In fact, governments have even faced the wrath of the opposition for intelligence failure.
Failing to acquire correct information, deriving faulty conclusions and delayed response or not acting upon the information have resulted in serious security lapses. Again, as in the past, there is no dearth of unsolicited advice and pontification over threat to democracy and liberty. One innovative additional idea this time is the out-of-the-box solution by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee to “plaster” her mobile phone to avoid being spied upon.
The list of criticisms and accusations in the now infamous Pegasus scandal also sounds familiar — misuse of intelligence agencies and using the police to snoop around for political purposes. Even those who are airing these concerns know that they are virtually repeating the words that the members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had used against the Congress government when they were in opposition.
Tied by tech
Information gathering has become both easy and complex because of the increasing dependence on modern communication technologies like spy satellites (although it is ironic to call it spy satellite if its purpose is to snoop secretly) and highly advanced handheld phones that are claimed to be hack-proof.
In November 2019, Facebook-owned popular messaging platform WhatsApp sued the $1billion worth NSO Group, the Israeli maker of the Pegasus spyware. The decade-old spyware, upgraded with powerful features, is supposed to get embedded into the mobile instrument through a missed WhatsApp call. After that, it starts decoding the encrypted contents, location details and audio-visual data and embosses them in a parallel chip. The information collected is transferred to the client without retaining any part of it as there is a special firewall that delinks the NSO chip from that of the receiver.
With more than 45 countries including Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the UAE as client states, half of the NSO Group’s revenue came from the Arab world. This is when the Israeli government began to regulate the sale of the software and use it as a diplomatic tool to build bridges with the Arab states. Although Tel Aviv refused to acknowledge its official links with the NSO Group, Israel’s former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was mandated to regulate the sale of the spy software, admitted its use for security and diplomatic purposes. “It is not a secret today that we have contact with all the moderate Arab world. I think it is good news,” he told Financial Times.
Considering the global network of terror outfits and the wide web that they are able to build within countries of their operation, it becomes extremely important for security agencies to employ most modern technologies and tap as many sources as possible for gathering information. The US, the UK, Israel, China and many other countries that continuously monitor various threat perceptions from multiple sources keep a strict vigil on prospective ‘informers’ both informative and inimical.
No one can deny that gathering information and using snooping technologies have their own collateral damage. This becomes even more pertinent when the agencies have to depend on a foreign service provider, like the NSO Group in this case. There are a number of checks and balances in the system to prevent information leak or preserve personal freedom and liberty. It is important for the Modi government to come clean on these issues and assure Indians that no part of the information will be misused. It is equally important for the opposition and the public-spirited non-governmental organisations to understand the compulsions of the government.
When the law permitting the US government to gather information was to be renewed during Donald Trump’s presidency, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, set up by the Congress, found that even after spending about $100 million of taxpayers’ money, “only twice during that four-year period did the program generate unique information that the F.B.I. did not already have.” In 2019, the US National Security Agency shut the programme because they had “collected more data than legally permissible.”
There are a number of lessons for the Modi government and the opposition, including a section of the media in this Pegasus episode. While national security is prime and non-negotiable, there should be many layers of caution that must be exercised when dealing with processes and situations that involve gathering information. Having trust and faith in the government is as important as it is for the government to be sincere and non-partisan in its approach.
Meanwhile, the government can have a technology transfer agreement with the NSO Group to manufacture mobile phones that cannot be hacked, even by the Pegasus spyware. Until then, plastering your cellphone should work.
The author is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)