When a CBI chief’s cell phone numbers are added to a list drawn up for possible Pegasus hacking hours after he is forced to quit, the laboured defence of the Centre saying it has no role in the alleged snoopgate begins to crumble. For, who else could have initiated the surveillance in double quick time and benefited from it after Alok Verma lost the job? Pegasus is not just a spyware, it is a best-of-its-class dual-use cyber weapon system that is bound by export control rules. Israel, the country where it was developed, decides which government it can be sold to.
Pegasus couldn’t have pried upon hundreds of Indians without entering the country. And it couldn’t have entered India without a deal with the Centre. Pegasus is designed to help neutralise national security threats, but if it is in the wrong hands, it could end up getting exploited for narrow personal gains. Is that what happened in India, as the list of its potential targets includes mediapersons, activists, a Supreme Court staffer who levelled sexual harassment charges against the then head of the judiciary, politicos, a free spirited election commissioner and officials close to an opposition government that was toppled? While restricted rules-based use of surveillance tools is legitimate, Pegasus captures the full digital imprint of not just the target but also their contacts.
This intrusion is against the right to privacy, a fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution.
Amid all the drama came the tax raids on Dainik Bhaskar, the second biggest print media group in India. Its timing suggested Bhaskar’s claim that it was being punished for its sharp reportage on the colossal mishandling of the second wave of Covid had at least a grain of truth. Free press is the cornerstone of a vibrant democracy. Attempts to silence the medium that holds a mirror to power must be resisted.
No wonder, both the raid and the snooping are being read as attempts to coerce the adversary. Since there is ample evidence of Pegasus proliferation, the natural corollary if India hasn’t acquired the spyware is that rogue elements are controlling it, which is more alarming. Will the government please answer one basic question first—did it buy Pegasus