Letter from Delhi: Indians rue a government that snoops but doesn’t listen
The list of phone numbers includes those of journalists critical of the regime and also a couple who sing its praises, policemen and activists imprisoned by policemen, bureaucrats and business leaders, an election commissioner who had the temerity to cross swords with the Prime Minister, a young woman who accused India’s senior-most judge of sexual harassment, a virologist and the bankrupt brother of India’s richest man.
Other phone numbers include those of the Dalai Lama’s long term envoy to India and the head of the cricket association of the state of Bihar; the head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in India and the leader of India’s opposition party. A relatively unknown bureaucrat was briefly on the list; he’s now India’s new minister for information and technology. The personal secretary of a once powerful, now sidelined, member of India’s ruling party was on the list too.
The hundreds of Indian phone numbers feature on a database of over 50,000 from around the world that were targeted for surveillance by clients of the NSO Group, a secretive Israeli spyware maker. Prominent international targets include French President Emmanuel Macron and the South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. The database was obtained by the French journalism non-profit Forbidden Stories and shared with 17 media organizations around the world, including TheWire in India.
This week, as India celebrates its 75th year of Independence, the country continues to be rocked by a massive snooping scandal revealing an unprecedented, and potentially unlawful, assault on individual liberty and personal privacy.
The NSO group says it only sells its software to government clients for legitimate investigations into terrorism or crime, does not operate the spyware licensed to its clients and has no insight into what its clients do with the tool. So does the Indian government use NSO spyware? Officials are yet to offer a straight answer.
When the story first broke in early July, the government told the Washington Post that “any interception, monitoring or decryption of any information through any computer resource is done as per due process of law.” This week India’s junior Defense Ministry told Parliament that the Defense Ministry “has not had any transaction with NSO Group Technologies”. News reports were quick to note that snooping on Indian citizens would likely come under the Ministry of Home Affairs rather than the MoD.
Amnesty International has analyzed the phones of some of the Indians on the list and found traces of NSO’s notorious Pegasus software on their devices. Once installed, the software unlocks a target’s phones and essentially turns it into a listening device capable of recording keystrokes, reading all messages and emails and even activating the device’s microphone and camera. The Guardian has a good rundown of the software’s capabilities.
To be sure, the nature of NSO spyware and the company’s refusal to reveal its clients makes it impossible to conclusively identify exactly who is to blame for all this snooping; but the names on the list and the timing of when they were flagged suggests the Indian government has rolled out a digital dragnet in which anyone who catches the attention of the regime is quickly put under surveillance.
For instance, in April 2019, a young woman accused the Chief Justice of India of sexually harassing her. Days later, 11 phone numbers associated with her and her family were put on the NSO list – illustrating a clear correlation between her being flagged as a person of interest to the government, and her getting swept up in the dragnet, according to a report in TheWire. The Chief Justice was cleared of sexual harassment in May 2019; six months after he retired, the Union government nominated him to India’s upper house of Parliament.
On the surface, the Pegasus revelations seem to be the latest evidence of the steep decline of democracy in India under the regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Dig a little deeper, critics say, and the sheer breadth of those targeted by Pegasus reveals a regime that sees all opposition as an existential threat while also keeping tabs on those it considers its friends.
“To be honest it was not surprising at all, with the kind of paranoia this government has been showing,” Anirban Bhattacharya, one of the people on the list, told me this week. Bhattacharya is a researcher at the Centre for Financial Accountability, an independent platform that works on development finance.
“All states surveil,” Bhattacharya said, “but there is a difference between security-centric surveillance, whether we agree with it or not, and it is different when you are driven by distrust and paranoia.”
This was the latter case, Bhattacharya said, “where you are going after people whose lives are very public.”
In February 2016, Bhattarcharya was a student at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University when he and his friend Umar Khalid were arrested and charged with sedition for organizing a seminar on Kashmir. (Yes, it is hard to believe that people can be charged with sedition for putting on an academic talk, but these things happen in India).
Bhattacharya and Khalid were subsequently released on bail. Over the next four years, Khalid rose to prominence as a political activist and a fierce critic of the Modi government. He was arrested again last summer for his alleged role in deadly riots in Delhi in an investigation that has been condemned as politically motivated. Incidentally, Khalid is on the list of Pegasus targets too. He’s been in prison for over 300 days now, charged under India’s draconian anti-terror laws.
The government’s crackdown on all criticism has had real costs. Many Indians believe that the country could have avoided a catastrophic second wave of Covid infections this summer if Modi had listened to experts and had not been so eager to declare victory over the virus.
“I just wish that instead of snooping this government relied more on listening, be it to the warnings before the second wave, or the people and their demands.” Bhattacharya said.
This week, India’s opposition parties released a short video on social media platforms requesting a Parliamentary debate on the Pegasus issue — a demand the government has refused thus far.
“We have been waiting for 14 days for a discussion,” the leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house, Mallikarjun Kharge says in the video. “If you have the courage, let’s have a discussion on Pegasus.”
Ironically, the video was titled “Mr. Modi, Come Listen To Us.”
Given Pegasus’s capabilities, chances are Mr. Modi’s people have been listening to opposition leaders all along.
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