Across the Aisle: Business only with governments, writes P Chidambaram

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August 01, 2021 6:00 AM

The four words are in a written communication of the NSO Group, the creator and owner of the malevolent spyware named Pegasus.

A man holds Hungary's PM Viktor Orban’s poster during a protest against the Hungarian government for using Pegasus spyware to monitor journalists, opposition leaders and activists in Budapest, Hungary (Reuters photo)A man holds Hungary's PM Viktor Orban’s poster during a protest against the Hungarian government for using Pegasus spyware to monitor journalists, opposition leaders and activists in Budapest, Hungary (Reuters photo)

The four words in the title ought to define the debate on the use of spyware to snoop on political leaders (Opposition members and ministers), judges, civil servants, students, civil rights activists, journalists and businesspersons. The four words are in a written communication of the NSO Group, the creator and owner of the malevolent spyware named Pegasus. This statement followed an earlier statement of the NSO Group that “NSO sells its technologies solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments.”

At the same time, however, the NSO Group has distanced itself from the actual use to which the spyware was put by its “clients”, that is governments. Some client-governments may have misused the spyware. There are questions in the Indian context. Before I list them, here is a warning: the uncomfortable questions are not for those who do not like Socrates or logic or reasoned argument. For the rest, the questions are:

No Straight Answers

1. Was the government of India or one of its agencies a client of the NSO Group?

This is a simple and straightforward question. The answer can be only yes or no but, for some inexplicable reason, the government has refused to give a straight answer. As the government digs its heels in and refuses to answer the question, suspicion has grown by the day.

2. The government’s possible answer has been complicated by The Wire’s report based on the international investigations that there was “an Indian client of the NSO Group”. If the client was not the government of India, who was it?

The government could say “we are not the client” but that would trigger the question “then, who was the Indian client?”. The government could say “I don’t know”, but that would trigger the question, “Are you not anxious to know who was the Indian client?”. The government does not know how to answer that question because, whatever be the answer, it would set in motion a chain of questions that the government is not prepared to answer.

3. If the government of India or its agency was one of the clients, when did it acquire the spyware?

If the government was confident about being in the clear, it could have answered by saying ‘no’ to the first question and ‘does not arise’ to this question. Again, for some inexplicable reason, the government has refused to give a straight answer to this question too — and therefore the suspicion has grown exponentially.

Strange Indifference

4. The investigation by Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories revealed a long list of ‘persons of interest’. Let’s keep that list aside and focus only on names of persons whose phones were actually infiltrated (allegedly). They include, according to The Wire, Mr Ashwini Vaishnaw and Mr Prahlad Patel, both ministers. Why is the government not perturbed about this revelation?

As citizens, we want to know if the ministers’ phones had been infiltrated. Why is the government pretending to be unconcerned? Would it not be a correct response if the government asked the ministers concerned to submit the devices they had used during 2017-2019 for forensic examination? The government does not show any anxiety — not even curiosity — to know the truth and such indifference has thrown a large, dark shadow of suspicion on it.

The conclusions drawn from the investigations are being revealed bit by bit. The watchword appears to be caution. The government is seeking to hide behind the caution and the caveats. Nothing in the caution or caveats can dilute the bitter truth that the NSO Group had an Indian client and some phones in India had been infiltrated. I am pretty certain that the name of the Indian client will tumble out soon. It is also possible that more phones in the list of persons of interest in India will be offered for forensic examination and it will reveal that some of them had been infiltrated by the spyware. At that point, what will the government do?

India vs Other Countries

The reaction of Mr Modi’s government to the Pegasus revelations stands in stark contrast to the reaction of a liberal democracy like France, a hard-wired democracy like Israel and a questionable democracy like Hungary.

France took serious exception to the allegation, President Emmanuel Macron convened an emergency security meeting, called for a series of investigations, spoke to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel, and Mr Bennett assured him that he will share the conclusions of the enquiry that Israel had ordered. Shortly thereafter, Defence Minister Benny Gantz of Israel flew to France presumably to make peace with France.

Israel ordered a review by the National Security Council of the allegations against the NSO Group. Israel government officials “visited” the offices of the NSO Group marking the start of an investigation.

In Hungary, the Minister of Justice said “every country needs such tools” but declined to comment on the Pegasus spyware. Opposition leaders, mayors and journalists were among persons whose phones had been infiltrated. Strident demands were made for the resignation of the government. The government stonewalled.

In India, the government opposed any kind of investigation and denied a debate in Parliament. BJP MPs refused to sign the attendance register at a meeting of the Parliamentary Committee and stymied the proceedings.

India, as of now, ranks with Hungary. Are you proud of that?

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